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The importance of folic acid when you are trying to conceive

Does folic acid help you get pregnant? Your pregnancy superhero

SUMMARY

Folic acid is known to help reduce the risks of neural tube defects, and aid the production of red blood cells. Discover more about this pregnancy superhero and why you should start taking it prior to conception.

Does folic acid help you get pregnant?

Many mums wonder whether folic acid will help them get pregnant. While folic acid will not help you to conceive, it is widely accepted that folic acid is vital for supporting healthy neural tube development in the very early stages of pregnancy. For this reason, it's considered an essential supplement for every woman’s conception and pregnancy routine4.

Why folic acid is so important in the early days

In the first month of life an embryo’s neural tube, or spine and nervous system, is already beginning to develop1. This means there's a need to protect them against neural tube defects – before you even realise you are pregnant.

“Taking folic acid prior to conception and during pregnancy can prevent around 7 out of 10 cases of neural tube defects.”1

Studies show that taking folic acid during this time can enhance neural tube development into the brain. It can also help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (also known as split spine)1.

What is spina bifida?

Spina bifida occurs when the spine and spinal cord do not develop properly, leaving a gap in the spine. As the spinal cord connects the entire body to the brain, it can lead to a wide range of symptoms1.

“Problems with neural tube development can also affect brain development.”

The exact causes of spina bifida are not fully understood, but a low intake of folic acid before becoming pregnant, family history, some types of medication, diabetes, and obesity are thought to contribute2.

What are the possible effects?

The symptoms of spina bifida include:

Cognitive problems – including a short attention span, difficulty solving problems, and difficulty with hand–eye coordination, such as tying shoelaces.

Mobility issues – damage to the brain may lead to some mobility problems with most spina bifida sufferers needing to use a mobility aid or even a wheelchair.

Bladder and bowel problems – bowel and urinary incontinence can occur if the nerves running from the brain to the bladder through the spinal cord are damaged.

Taking the right amount of folic acid at the right time

To help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, you are advised to take 400 micrograms (0.4mg) of folic acid per day. Ideally this should start as soon as you stop using contraception, and continue until the 12th week of pregnancy. Alternatively, start taking it as soon as you know you're pregnant – you can still positively influence your baby’s development.

"400mcg (0.4mg) of folic acid per day is recommended, before conception and for the first trimester.”

However, based on the outcome of a recent study, you may consider taking folic acid for much longer than this. The study looked at the effect folic acid had on having a preterm baby, and revealed a significant decrease in preterm delivery in women who took the supplement for a year before conceiving3.

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Mums who might need an extra boost

In some cases your HCP will advise you to take a higher dose of folic acid at 5mg4. This is usually because:

  • You have had a previously affected pregnancy
  • You or a family member have a spinal cord defect
  • You're taking medication for epilepsy
  • You're obese with a BMI over 30
  • You have coeliac disease, diabetes, sickle cell anaemia, or thalassaemia3

View references

Hide references

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1. NHS UK. Spina bifida [Online]. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/Spina-bifida/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Accessed May 2014]

2. NHS UK. Causes of spina bifida [Online]. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Spina-bifida/Pages/Causes.aspx [Accessed May 2014]

3. Patient UK. Diet and lifestyle during pregnancy [Online]. Available at: http://patient.info/health/diet-and-lifestyle-during-pregnancy [Accessed May 2014]

4. NHS UK. Vitamin and nutrition in pregnancy [Online]. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/vitamins-minerals-supplements-pregnant.aspx [Accessed July 2014]

Last reviewed: 4th July 2016

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