Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9 and folate, is important to the body's normal functioning. Among its many critical roles, folic acid helps protect against brain and spinal cord defects that develop within the first weeks of pregnancy. It does so by participating in nerve cell growth.
Of the many birth defects that occur at the beginning of the pregnancy, spina bifida is the most common. This defect is characterized by the incomplete closure of the neural tube (the structure that will develop into the brain and spine). Those affected may experience a variety of disabilities such as a poor or absent bladder control or leg weakness.
Some birth defects could be prevented if women of childbearing age consumed an adequate amount of folic acid, either by eating sufficient quantities of foods that are fortified with folic acid or by taking vitamin supplements. It has been shown that taking an adequate amount of folic acid before and during pregnancy can reduce the risk of other birth defects such as congenital cardiopathy (heart malformations), urinary tract anomalies, oral facial clefts (cleft lip or palate), limb defects and certain paediatric cancers.
To reduce the risk of birth defects, Canadian recommendations for folic acid vary as a result of certain factors such as woman health status and personal or family history of a previous neural tube defect pregnancy. Women are advised to take a multivitamin that contains between 0.4 mg and 5 mg of folic acid daily. Speak to your pharmacist or doctor to find out which dose best suits your needs.
Because neural tube closure occurs within the first month of gestation (before even finding out that you are pregnant) and since 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, it is recommended that all women of childbearing age eat a healthy diet rich in folic acid. Adding a supplement may also be considered.
When planning to become pregnant, it is important to start taking folic acid supplements 2 to 3 months before conception since it is unlikely that you will meet the recommended daily intake through diet alone.
Since our bodies do not produce folic acid, we must absorb it through the foods we eat. It is mainly found in white flour (that has been enriched), chickpeas, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, peas, Brussels sprouts, corn, lentils and oranges. Most multivitamins also contain the recommended daily dosage of folic acid. You can also take folic acid supplements.
For more information:
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC)
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