Folic acid, also known as folate, is one of the B complex vitamins. It received its name from the Latin word “folium,” alluding to its presence in dark green foliage, such as spinach, kale, chard and beet greens. Folate is a delicate vitamin, and it is easily lost during the processing of foods or by exposure to heat, light or acid. Even prolonged storage at room temperature decreases the potency of folate. Since it is critical for normal fetal development, pregnant women or women who are contemplating pregnancy should take extra folate.
Folate is essential for the synthesis of DNA and RNA. Hence, any process that demands extra cellular production, such as pregnancy, increases your need for folate. Folate is instrumental in the formation of hemoglobin, which is the oxygen-carrying protein in your red blood cells, and in the metabolism and conversion of proteins and amino acids. Folic acid plays a major role in the production of neurotransmitters in your brain, and it is needed for the normal development of the fetal nervous system.
The typical Western diet, which is rich in processed foods, meats, fats and sugars, is a poor source of folic acid. Nutritionist Elson Haas, M.D., believes that folate deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in America. Folic acid deficiency leads to fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, mental disorders and megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by abnormally large and poorly functioning red blood cells. During pregnancy, folate deficiency inhibits the development of an infant’s brain and spinal cord, leading to malformations called neural tube defects.
Sources and Recommendations
The best source of folate is fresh, dark green leafy vegetables. Bean sprouts and wheat germ are good sources, as are liver, kidney and brewer’s yeast. Many foods are fortified with folate, but storage reduces its potency. In 1998 the National Academy of Sciences established recommended daily allowances for folate, ranging from 65mcg daily for infants to 600mcg daily for pregnant women. People with increased needs for folate, such as pregnant women, may need to take supplements.
Demands of Pregnancy
Normal fetal brain development is dependent on adequate maternal levels of folate. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, an infant’s brain and spinal cord undergo critical development during the fourth week of gestation, when many women do not even realize they are pregnant. Therefore, the U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant take 400mcg of folate daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends that pregnant women take 600mcg of folate daily. This dosage ensures adequate levels for fetal development as well as the expectant mother’s need for additional red blood cell production.
Folate's benefits during pregnancy are well documented, and prenatal vitamins are usually formulated to meet the increased requirement. However, prenatal vitamins are not all the same. Some preparations may require two or more capsules or pills to furnish an adequate daily intake of folate, iron or other nutrients. Your prenatal vitamin should supply at least 600mcg of folic acid in each day’s dose. Read the label carefully to determine what that dosage is, and consult your doctor if you are not certain that your prenatal vitamin meets your needs.
- “Staying Healthy with Nutrition: Folic Acid”; Elson M. Haas, M.D.; 2006
- The Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center: Folic Acid
- The National Academies Press: Folate
- Food and Nutrition Board: Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins