Nutrition in Pregnancy – So why all the fuss about folate?

Most of you will be aware (and have surely been told by your doctor) that you need extra folate in Pregnancy. But why? What does it do? Has anyone ever explained?

Folate is one of the B-complex group of vitamins. It is known as folate in its naturally occurring form in food, or folic acid when in synthetic supplemental form. In the body it is essential for the building and repair of DNA. Requirements for this vitamin double in pregnancy, where there is rapid cell division and growth – all of which requires folate.

When there is a lack of folate in the diet, this can lead to a deficiency in the body, which may not necessarily produce any apparent signs and symptoms for up to 4 months. This is because the body usually stores about this much in the tissues. However, if a woman has been steadily using up these stores in the months before pregnancy, there may not be enough for healthy cell reproduction in the growing foetus. That’s why supplements are usually recommended for at least three months before conception.

When folate is taken before falling pregnant and in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it can prevent 7 out of 10 cases of neural tube defects. This is the time when it is most imperative, as the baby’s nervous system is being developed. The neural tube is the precursor (the thing that develops into) the baby’s brain and spinal cord. It forms, deepens, folds and closes in the first four to six weeks of pregnancy. If there is adequate folate, this will help to ensure that the cells form properly. As some women may not know they are pregnant until after this time, it is extra important that they are not folate deficient if there is the possibility of conception. If the neural tube doesn’t form properly, this may lead to malformations of the spine, skull, and brain, including a condition called spina bifida or anencephaly.

Deficiency of folate has also been linked to low birth weights, which may be because the baby doesn’t grow properly in the womb.

Whilst you can get folate in food, much of it is destroyed via storage and cooking processes. Also, very few of us eat a ‘perfect’ diet day in and day out. This is why supplements are usually recommended. However, it is important to be careful about what supplement you take. Large amounts of folate on their own, as in some popular pharmacy products, may have the side effect of lowering Zinc absorption (another vital nutrient in pregnancy). They have also been linked to lower maternal immunity and to abnormally slow foetal heart rates. High doses of folate can also mask a deficiency of Vitamin B12.

Folate is a member of the B vitamin complex, and all of these vitamins work together. A comprehensive pregnancy multivitamin (that has been well-formulated) will ensure that you are getting enough of all of these vitamins in the right amounts. 

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