Folic acid is used to make the extra blood your body needs during pregnancy. All women should consume 0.4 mg of folic acid a day.
You should start taking folic acid prior to getting pregnant, even if you are not trying to conceive. Neural tube defects usually develop very early in pregnancy (18-30 days after conception) often before a women even knows that she is pregnant. If you find you are pregnant and have not been taking folic acid, you may start now to help prevent any neural defects that would develop in the first three months of pregnancy.
The absence of folic acid increases the possibility of a neural tube defect which are defects in the development of the spinal cord.
Since more than half of pregnancies are unplanned, the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to fortify food so that all women of childbearing age get a daily dose of folic acid. The following foods can help you obtain your recommended amount of folic acid:
A daily vitamin with folic acid is also suggested since the food listed above may not contain enough of the supplement to meet the requirement.
Women who are at the greatest risk are those that have had a previous pregnancy that involved a neural defect. Women who are not eating a balanced diet that includes folic acid are also at risk.
The best way to prevent neural defects is to take the recommended 0.4 mg of folic acid daily, for one month before conception and during the first three months. Multivitamins that include folic acid should only be used as a supplement. You cannot take too much folic acid, but you can over-dose on the other vitamins contained in multivitamin formulas.
Neural tube defects are detected through an AFP (Alpha-fetoprotein test) a blood test administered at 16-18 weeks gestation. The test measures alpha-fetoprotein, a substance produced by the fetus and secreted into the amniotic fluid, eventually entering the mother's blood. The level of AFP in mother's blood peaks at about 30-32 weeks. Abnormally high amounts of AFP may indicate a baby has a neural tube defect.
An elevated AFP could mean the mother is carrying twins or that there is a problem with the placenta. Women with diabetes or liver disease may also have an elevated AFP. However, an elevated AFP could also mean there are birth defects in the fetus such as severe kidney disease, liver disease, esophageal or intestinal blockage, Down Syndrome, urinary obstruction, or osteogenesis imperfecta (fragility of the baby's bones)
Reprinted with permission from American Pregnancy Association