Why is folic acid so important during pregnancy?

When you are pregnant or are thinking of expanding the family, you start reading all kinds of recommendations and advice, among which folic acid will surely appear , but do you really know what it is and why it is so important? In this article we explain why it is essential to ensure a correct intake of folic acid, even before getting pregnant.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is how we colloquially know vitamin B9 . However, it should be clarified that the natural form of vitamin B9 is folate, while folic acid is the synthetic formula used for vitamin supplements or fortified foods.

Vitamins are micronutrients, that is, compounds that our body needs in very small amounts but which are essential because they participate in different functions, necessary for the proper functioning of our body, some examples are: 

  • Vitamin A is essential for correct vision as it is involved in the formation of visual pigments in the retina
  • vitamin D participates in the formation and maintenance of bones, helping to absorb calcium
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant that participates in the correct maintenance of cell membranes, among many other functions

If you want to know more about vitamins and their role in pregnancy, you can expand this information in our article “Vitamins and minerals in pregnancy. Are supplements necessary in all cases?”

In the case of vitamin B , we must speak in the plural, since there are several that form the B complex, and as a whole they play a very important role in physiological processes , which have both a direct and indirect effect on brain function. Some functions of the B complex vitamins are:

  • They participate in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and proteins, helping to release energy from them.
  • Contribute to the production of red blood cells 
  • Contribute to the proper functioning of the nervous system

It should be noted that the B complex vitamins are water- soluble , which means that they dissolve in water to be absorbed in the body, for this reason they cannot be stored and the necessary amount of these vitamins must be provided each day through the diet. Specifically, vitamin B9 or folic acid is naturally present in some vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, meats, and dairy products, although if you are planning to get pregnant they have surely recommended taking a folic acid supplement, as we will see below. 

Functions of folic acid in the body 

Folic acid participates in key biochemical reactions for the body, therefore it plays an important role in:

  • Biosynthesis of nucleic acids , both DNA and RNA (DNA, as you know from other posts on our blog, is our genetic material, that is, the instructions our cells have for the body to function properly).
  • Maintaining the integrity and repair of DNA , which makes it play an essential role in cell division
  • protein biosynthesis
  • Methylation processes , an essential process for gene expression

Role of folic acid during pregnancy 

The process that gives rise to the embryo is called embryogenesis and is one of the moments that requires an extra supply of folic acid . This is because the biochemical reactions that we have mentioned above are fundamental during the development of the fetus, since there is a high rate of cell division for the formation of a new individual.  

An insufficient supply of folic acid during pregnancy is associated with neural tube defects in the fetus. These defects occur as a consequence of a failure in the closure of the neural tube during the formation of the embryo, between days 21 and 27 of embryonic life, approximately. This means that the closure occurs during the first month and the woman may not even know that she is pregnant.

Some of the neural tube defects are incompatible with life such as anencephaly , in which brain tissue does not develop. Others, such as spina bifida , occur when the neural tube does not close completely, causing different types of spinal conditions that are usually evident from birth. These conditions are associated with physical and intellectual disability, ranging in severity from mild to severe, depending on the size and location of the opening and whether or not the nerves are affected.

When should I start taking folic acid?  

Experts recommend starting folic acid supplements 1 or 2 months before becoming pregnant and maintaining the intake at least during the first trimester , although supplementation is generally maintained throughout pregnancy. 

As we have mentioned, folic acid is not capable of being stored in the body efficiently, so its recommended consumption is daily and it has been shown that taking it irregularly can reduce its protective effect against neural tube defects.  

Recommended daily amounts  

In general, it is recommended that all people take a daily amount of 100 μg of folic acid , however, during pregnancy it is recommended to increase the amount to 400 μg per day. Although, as we will see below, folic acid is present in many foods, it is difficult to ensure that the contribution is correct and therefore it is recommended to take folic acid supplements during pregnancy .

What foods are rich in folic acid?  

Folic acid is naturally present in a wide variety of foods, among which we highlight those with a high concentration (> 100 μg/100g):

  • Vegetables : especially green ones such as spinach or watercress
  • Fruits : for example, avocado contains a high percentage 
  • Foods of animal origin : some cheeses such as brie or semi-cured goat cheese are rich in folic acid , and products derived from liver such as foie gras 
  • Legumes : within the legumes chickpeas stand out
  • Nuts : sunflower seeds or walnuts are rich in this micronutrient

It is important to know that depending on how the food is prepared, the amount of folic acid can vary. For example, raw spinach has 192 μg/100g, while cooked drops to 140 μg/100g.

Causes and consequences of not taking a sufficient amount of folic acid

People who have a deficit or an insufficient amount of folic acid in their body tend to have a poorly varied diet, with an incorrect food choice , which can also be influenced by how they process food before consuming it. 

On the other hand, a high consumption of alcohol can interfere with the proper absorption of folic acid. In addition, people with pathologies that cause malabsorption , such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease , may also have difficulties acquiring the necessary amount of this micronutrient through the diet.  

When the contribution of folic acid is not appropriate, the deficit is harmful whether you are pregnant or not. As we have seen, in pregnancy the consequences of an insufficient supply of this micronutrient can be extremely serious for the fetus, and may even cause the termination of the pregnancy

However, in people who are not pregnant, this folic acid deficiency is associated with a type of anemia known as megaloblastic, which can predispose to infections, especially of the respiratory and urinary tracts , and in specific cases it is also associated with anorexia and weight loss. of weight , diarrhea or constipation, hyperpigmentation of the skin, among others. 

As you have seen, folic acid is an essential micronutrient for multiple functions in the body and during pregnancy it plays an essential role in preventing the appearance of complications in the fetus. 

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