Posted by Claudia Grazioso on February 10, 2012
A friend of mine has recently decided to try to have kids. I am thrilled for her, naturally, and we have spent many afternoons discussing how to prepare for kids. We have talked about Mommy and Me programs and preschools. She’s interviewing doulas, and debating the merits of cloth diapers. She’s looking into a pregnancy yoga class and assembling a maternity wardrobe. Last night I went digging through our basement for an awesome black dress I wore when I was pregnant, and I thought of something else I should tell my friend about: Folic acid. Now, of course, her obstetrician will probably cover all of that major stuff, but the thing about folic acid is you have to take it before you’re pregnant to get its full benefit.
Why is folic acid so important during pregnancy? For starters, this B vitamin has a proven track record of drastically reducing a devastating type of birth defect known as neural tube defects. Neural tube defects include everything from spina bifida to an underdeveloped brain to a condition known as encephalocele, which is an opening in the skull. In the United States, approximately 3,000 babies every year are born with neural tube defects. That’s the bad news. The good news is that something as simple as getting enough folic acid can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by up to 70 percent. How much is enough? Most experts recommend that women get at least 400 mg a day, and some doctors advise pregnant women to get as much as 600 mg.
No one is quite sure why folic acid is so effective against this birth defect, but some scientists theorize that it’s because folic acid plays a major role in DNA formation, cell growth and tissue formation. The only catch is you have to start early. Most doctors recommend that women hoping to get pregnant up their intake of folic acid for a few months before they actually conceive. Since major cell growth happens in the first trimester of pregnancy (and that’s also when neural tube defects form), it’s very important to take folic acid even before you know you are pregnant. So if parenthood is on your horizon, you might want to start paying attention to your folic acid intake now.
There are so many things that are hard to control about pregnancy, but getting enough folic acid is easy. Yes, getting all of your vitamins through your regular diet is desirable, and you could gnaw your way through an entire field of kale, or eat enriched cereal by the truckload. Or you can eat a balanced and healthy diet, and talk to your doctor about taking a supplement that will give you all the folate you need. Then you can focus more energy on that killer maternity wardrobe.