Folic acid is a B vitamin which is important for the formation of red blood cells and a healthy development of the central nervous system, especially the spinal cord. All pregnant women are encouraged to increase their intake of folic acid via natural foods as well as supplements during their pregnancy. If they are trying to conceive, doctors also recommended they begin taking folic acid supplements during the â€œtryingâ€ period.
Folic acid or folate?
An article discussing the importance of folic acid during pregnancy does warrant a short explanation of the difference between folic acid and folate. First and foremost, the two terms are often used interchangeably for the sake of simplicity although they are somewhat different.
Folic acid is a purely synthetic compound that can be bought in capsules or added to foods in order to fortify them. Hence, why you are able to purchase cereals and various food products fortified in folic acid. Folate is a naturally occurring substance which can be found in a variety of foods including vegetables with dark green leaves such as spinach and many pulses. Both naturally occurring folate and synthetic folic acid are used by the body and metabolized in the same way. The difference lies in the fact that synthetic folic acid is more easily absorbed by the human body.
How much folic acid should I take?
You can eat as many vegetables and natural sources as folate as you wish. You do not need to keep track of how much spinach, asparagus or beans you eat. Of courses, other sources rich in folate should be eaten in moderation; for example liver. However, limiting the amount of liver you eat in pregnancy is not due to its high folate content but rather to its high vitamin A content. Some studies have suggested that high doses of vitamin A could lead to neural tube defects.
With regards to the supplements and synthetic forms of folic acid, you should keep to 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid before and during pregnancy daily. Whilst few studies have shown any problems arising from high doses of folic acid, it is sensible to remain within the medically stipulated guidelines. It is important to begin taking folic acid before you pregnant because the fetusâ€™s brain and spinal cord begin forming in the first 3-4 weeks. This period is crucial. If levels of folic acid are very low, the chances of the baby suffering from a neural tube defect escalate.
But what exactly are neural tube defects?
Neural tube defects are defects of the neural tube (mainly the spinal cord), the skulls or the brain. Medically, they are divided into cranial and spinal neural tube defects, depending on which part if affected.Â The most common neural tube defects are Spina bifida (a spinal defect) and anencephaly (a cranial defect). Babies born with Spina bifida can live into adulthood whilst babies suffering from anencephaly will die within hours of birth.
Neural tube defects are essentially malformations of deformations of the neural tube. This tube begins very much as a flat pipe (picture a garden hose that is brand new or has been flattened through long periods of disuse). During the first few weeks of pregnancy, this flat tube begins to turn into a rounded tube. Failure to form into a proper round tube results in a neural tube defect.
Although folic acid plays such an important role, there are other factors which come to bear. For example, a family history of neural tube defects, obesity and diabetes all increase the chances of neural tube defects.
What happens if doctors suspect a neural tube defect?
Regular prenatal care visits are extremely important because they can help detect neural tube defects. Ultrasounds can detect Spina bifida pretty early in pregnancy as can maternal serum testing. If any of these two tests indicate that the unborn baby may be suffering from a NTD, then further tests need to be carried out. The main test which might ring a bell with many mums is amniocentesis. Amniocentesis involves the extraction of a sample of amniotic fluid from the amniotic sac. The procedure must be carried out by a qualified surgeon and although it takes just under half an hour and does not require general anesthetic, there is nevertheless, the risk of miscarriage. Analysis of samples of amniotic fluid may reveal high levels of a protein associated with NTDs.
Amniocentesis is also a method fetal DNA extraction that is used for prenatal DNA testing. In this case, the sample of amniotic fluid is used to extract the genetic markers of the unborn baby. Once the genetic markers are mapped, they can then be compared to the genetic markers of the alleged father to confirm whether or not he is the father.
Karl M McDonald is a free-lance writer specializing in the field of genetics and DNA testing. Articles by the author can be found on many blogs and info sites, including the article knowledge base for easyDNA Ireland. Karl M McDonald currently lives in West Sussex, UK with his wife, kids and 2 dogs.