The importance of taking folate before falling pregnant

Folate plays a vital role in preventing neural tube defects in the early stages of pregnancy. Here’s why you should consider supplementing with folate before you plan to conceive.


“Neural tube defects (NTD) in the early stages of pregnancy, and related complications, can be reduced if proper care is taken and more women are made aware of the options available to them,” says Chief of Clinical Genetics in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern Medicine, Professor Lee Shulman. Taking folate at the right time can’t be emphasised enough as a primary intervention mechanism to mitigate NTD prevalence, particularly among women of reproductive age. Folate has a well-established protective role against both first occurrence and the recurrence of NTDs.

ALSO SEE: 7 tips to prepare your body for pregnancy

What are neural tube defects?

“NTDs are major malformations resulting from the failure of the neural tube to close properly and can have serious consequences for a child’s quality of life. Normally, the neural tube closes in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant,” says Shulman.

About 300 000 babies worldwide are born with NTDs annually. Infants with spina bifida – when the bones of the spine (vertebrae) don’t form properly around part of the baby’s spinal cord – have life-long disabilities with varying degrees of paralysis. For example, it can cause paralysis of the legs or loss of bowel or bladder control. Sadly, babies with anencephaly – the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp that occurs during embryonic development – usually die a few days after birth.

ALSO SEE: Prenatal vitamins – what you really need

How folate can help if taken earlier

“The devastating effects of NTD necessitates an early preventative measure to build up the necessary levels of folate among child-bearing women,” says Shulman. Since folate belongs to the group of B vitamins and can’t be produced by the body, women should talk to their doctors about the available options of supplementing folate prior to even getting pregnant. Folate is able to facilitate a number of essential functions within the body, including enabling the healthy development and growth of the foetus in the womb.

Women are at a distinct advantage if they have elevated folate levels by the time they conceive. A large body of evidence suggests that the risk of NTDs can be substantially reduced if women who are planning a pregnancy supplement their diet with a daily intake of folic acid at least a month before pregnancy, and during the early weeks of gestation..

Because there are limitations on how much folate you can get from food (you would have to eat 500g of raw spinach, 900g boiled spinach or 900g raw broccoli, which is about 12 cups to achieve the required levels), a supplementary intake of folate is recommended as a way to intervene against NTDs. A diet rich in folate foods is important, but this is not sufficient on its own..

Some birth control pills are now fortified with folate

If you are a woman of childbearing age, taking a contraceptive for the purpose of spacing your children, or if you’re planning on having children in future, talk to your doctor about the newer folate supplements.

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