When I told my doctor that I plan to start a family soon after my wedding (later this year) she advised me to begin taking a prenatal vitamin three months prior to the date. I was surprised because I feel my diet is balanced and adequate. She explained that a supplement is necessary to prepare the body for pregnancy and ensure the future baby’s spine and brain develop completely.
This week, January 2 – 8, 2011, is National Folic Acid Awareness week.
Folate is a B vitamin in its natural form. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. It is important to understand that the body converts folic acid into folate so that it can perform its assigned functions such as:
- synthesize DNA for growing cells
- co-dependent on vitamin B12 for activation
Once folate and vitamin B12 have activated each other, folate is ready to support DNA synthesis and cell growth. This support is vital because an embryo’s brain and spinal cord develop from the neural tube when cell growth is rapid. Formation of the brain and spinal cord occur during the first few weeks of pregnancy often before a pregnancy is discovered. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) half of pregnancies are unplanned and by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant it may be too late to prevent these [brain and spinal cord] defects.
Furthermore, according to the National Council of Folic Acid, “Hispanic babies are 1.5 to 2 times more likely than others in the U.S. to be born with an NTD[neural tube defect].” The CDC reports that Hispanic/Latina women are less likely to consume foods fortified with folic acid and have lower folate blood levels.
However, it isn’t just women that are encouraged to take folate. In a 2008 study published in MedPage Today and WebMD researchers at University of California Berkeley found “High folate intake among men [an extra 100 micrograms per day] may reduce their children’s risk of chromosomal birth defects, including Down’s syndrome.” This study is the first to suggest “…the male diet affects not just the ability to conceive but the health of offspring as well.”
I find this extremely interesting because it solidifies that procreation not only needs a healthy woman but a healthy man as well. However, it is important to note that this study was small and although the age ranges of the participants were broad the population was not diverse.
- Women of childbearing age, not pregnant: 400 micrograms daily
- Pregnant women: 600 micrograms daily
- Males ages 14+: 400 micrograms daily
Fortified foods and Supplements
Folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, is added to foods and supplements. Since 1998, the FDA mandated fortification of grain products to help prevent NTDs such as spina bifida. Spina bifida is a birth defect caused by too little folate in the mother’s body at the time of conception. Today many of our foods are fortified (e.g., breads, pasta, cereals) with folic acid because the absorption rate is 1.7 times the rate of natural folate. Now it is possible to get 100% of your daily value from a serving of fortified breakfast cereal.
Sources of Naturally Occurring Folate
- 1 cup cooked spinach, boiled drained no salt – 263 micrograms, 66% DV
- 1 cup cooked black beans – 256 micrograms, 64% DV
- 1 cup kidney beans, cooked without salt – 230 micrograms, 57% DV
- 1 cup brussels sprouts cooked, boiled without salt – 94 micrograms, 23% DV
- 1 cup orange juice fresh squeezed – 74 micrograms, 18% DV
With the amount of folate naturally occurring in foods, which are many of the foods I eat, combined with possibly taking a supplement I naturally asked my doctor about any danger of toxicity. She wasn’t concerned as the upper intake level established is 1,000 micrograms from fortified foods and supplements. And folate intake from food has not been “…associated with any health risk.”
So when the times comes to start a family I will be sure to count not only my folate intake from food but any folic acid received from supplements or fortified grains. My soon-to-be husband and I will be healthy, informed and up-to-date on related nutrition and wellness information.