If you are pregnant or are planning to conceive, you must have heard your doctor or well-wishers tell you that you need to increase your folic acid intake. Ever asked why? Well, we did – and here are the answers we got from Sonali Shivlani, Internationally Certified Pregnancy, Lactation and Child Nutrition Counsellor.
Folic acid is part of the B group of vitamins specifically, B9. It occurs naturally in our body, and the natural form is called folate.
Your baby’s development depends on it
During pregnancy, the baby develops rapidly and hence needs nutrients in the right proportion. If folate is deficient in the mother, it can lead to complications in the mother and defects in the baby as well. Folate is important during the pre-conception and early pregnancy phase because this is when the foetus develops spine and nerve cells. Deficiency can lead to neural tube defects or malformation of the spine in the developing baby – known as spina bifida – it has a life-long impact on the child. Since many times a woman may not realise that she is pregnant, all women who are of the child bearing age or are planning a baby are advised to take folic acid supplements. (Read: Symptoms of pregnancy)
It is great for the mother too!
For the mother, folate is especially important as it is responsible for the development of blood cells, it reduces incidents of certain types of anaemia. And with the right haemoglobin levels, a pregnant mother can nourish the developing foetus well. All this helps in reducing the chances of IUGR (Intrauterine Growth Retardation) in the baby. Folate supplements also help the mother manage pregnancy symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue better. (Read: Your most common pregnancy queries answered)
Start taking supplements even when you plan to conceive
If you are planning to conceive in the near future, it is advised that you ideally have supplements three months prior to conception and then for the first three months of pregnancy. (Read: Vitamin D supplements good for pregnant women)
How much is too much?
Ideally, folate supplements should be taken along with B12 supplements for optimum absorption, and to prevent any nerve damage – a common side effect of B12 deficiency. That being said, do not try to self-medicate, it is best to take the supplement under guidance of a doctor or a certified nutritionist , since the doses have to be tailor-made for you. For example : The dose for pregnant mums is much higher than that of a normal adult. In comparison, for adults over 50 years of age, a lower dose may be recommended.
Too much of a good thing, can be bad for you
The positive effects of taking the supplement far outweigh the ill-effects, even so, there are a few things that everybody should know. As mentioned above, if folate is not taken with complementary supplements, it can lead to nerve damage. Other possible symptoms are – a drop in blood sugar, sleep problems, skin reactions and seizures. These symptoms are only seen with an intake of very high doses, since folic acid is a water soluble vitamin and gets washed out of the system without being stored in the body. Thereby reducing the chances of toxicity.
When should you stop?
Pregnant mums can stop as per the doctor’s recommendation. Some physicians discontinue it once the mother has completed twelve weeks of pregnancy, while some prefer to keep the supplement going for the full term of pregnancy.
Nature has its own supplements, give them a try
There are foods like green leafy vegetables, dried herbs, sunflower seeds, peanuts, bean sprouts, beans, soybean and liver, that are great sources of natural folate. That being said, one would need a nutritionist’s help to determine the amount and method of eating these vegetables to get the amount of folate required. Since pregnancy is such a crucial time for both the mother and the baby, it is best not to take a risk and use supplements with your doctor’s advice. (Read: 7 weird cravings during pregnancy)