Folic acid critical for early embryonic development

by Julie Snyder

Folic AcidAlthough essential throughout your pregnancy, folic acid plays a critical role during early embryonic development. Learn why this supplement plays such a key role.

Folic acid is also known as folate. This water-soluble B-group vitamin isn't stored in the body and must be replenished each day.

Most neural tube defects are preventable if moms-to-be take it before trying to conceive as well as during their pregnancy.

Role in brain and spinal cord development

This vital vitamin helps the neural tube grow. Between weeks 2 and 3 of your pregnancy the neural plate forms, becoming a tube then developing into the brain and spinal cord.

A lack of folate may cause the neural tube to close incorrectly. The baby could develop a neural tube defect such as spina bifida.

These birth defects occur within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy. It's common that the birth defects occur before a woman even knows she's pregnant.

Since about half of pregnancies aren't planned, heath organizations recommend a diet rich in folates or a supplement containing the vitamin. Having enough in your system during early stages could prevent risks as baby's brain and spinal cord develop.

Every year, about 3,000 infants are born with neural tube defects (NTDs). Taking the recommended amount of folate before and during pregnancy reduces the incidence of NTDs by as much as 70 percent, according to the CDC.

You might like these articles:

 •Types of spina bifida
 •Natural ways to get pregnant
 •Do supplements increase your fertility?
 •Pre-pregnancy checklist helps prepare couples

How much folic acid should you take?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends all women trying to conceive taking a daily multivitamin containing 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid at least 1 month before conception and continuing through the first trimester. This is to reduce the risk for neural tube defects.

In addition, the USPSTF recommends a daily multivitamin containing 400 micrograms of folic acid for all women capable of pregnancy to reduce the risk for neural tube defects in unplanned pregnancies. If you've already had a baby with an NTD, have diabetes or epilepsy, your doctor may prescribe a higher dose.

Good food choices for folate

You can find this vitamin in these easy to find foods:

  • Lentils
  • Asparagus, broccoli and spinach
  • Black beans
  • Peanuts
  • Orange juice
  • Enriched breads, fortiefied breakfast cereals and pasta
  • Romaine lettuce

Reduce risk for birth defects

Research dating back to the 1980s has shown the link between the use of folic acid and the reduction of spina bifida cases.

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated folic acid fortification of the United States grain supply. The FDA is currently reviewing a petition to fortify the U.S. supply of corn mesa flour. Rates of neural tube defects and specifically spina bifida have been reduced by these efforts.

However vitamin supplementation at the appropriate dose, based on an individual woman's risk profile remains critical. Close to 70 percent of spina bifida cases may be prevented by the appropriate use of folic acid. The exact cause of spina bifida is unknown, but likely involves a combination of genetics and environment.

Our genetics don't change, but we can certainly affect our environment. Have you had your vitamin today?


Medical references:
- Centers for Disease Control. Recommendations for the use of folic acid to reduce the number of cases of spina bifida and other neural tube defects. MMWR 1992;41.
- MRC Vitamin Study Research Group. Prevention of neural tube defects: results of the Medical Research Council Vitamin Study. Lancet 1991;338:131-7.
- Smithells RW et al. Possible prevention of neural-tube defects by periconceptional vitamin supplementation. Lancet. 1980 Feb 16;1(8164):339-40.
- US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendations

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.