By now, you may have already heard that folate is an essential nutrient for pregnant women.
It's indeed a very important vitamin for women who are trying to conceive and expecting a baby, for very good reason.
While we may get away with not having enough folate in our diets from time to time, nowhere is the need more emphasised than when a woman is pregnant.
This is because it's the time when the growing foetus creates extra demands on the woman's body, drawing on our stores of folate – should we have enough.
What is Folate?
Folate (from the Latin word ‘folium’ or leaf) is a water-soluble B vitamin, otherwise known as vitamin B9, or in its synthetic form, folic acid.
As the name implies, folate is naturally occurring in green, leafy plants.
What Does Folate Do?
Folate is a co-enzyme (a helper molecule that binds with protein) that enables the DNA to replicate.
In other words, without folate, cells cannot divide. The body's demand for this vitamin steeply increases when cell division happens at a fast rate, especially in conception and the early stages of pregnancy. Lack of folate further means that red blood cells continue to grow without dividing, making it difficult for the body to properly absorb oxygen.
Why Is Folate So Important?
Given the critical role of folate in cell division, inadequate amounts of the vitamin prior to conception – and especially during the first trimester – could lead to birth defects. A cluster of foetal abnormalities is known as Neural Tube Defects (NTDs). This developmental congenital disorder affects the brain, the spinal cord, and the thin membrane covering these organs.
Two of the most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly.
- In spina bifida (which is Latin for ‘split spine’), during the first month of fetal development, the lower part of the neural tube that will eventually become the spinal column does not close, leaving the spinal cord vulnerable. As a result, the nerves that control the lower spine and the pelvis are malformed, leading to paralysis of the legs and loss of bladder and bowel control. These are often lifelong disabilities that may or may not be remedied by multiple surgeries.
- In anencephaly (sometimes called by its Latin name, cranium bifidum) which is the less common form of spina bifida, the upper part of the neural tube which will become the cerebrum (the forebrain that controls voluntary actions) does not close. When other parts of the brain do not fuse, it results in encephalocele. A foetus with encephalocele will have a groove down the middle of the skull, in the back of the skull, or in the region between the forehead and the nose. In any case, babies with these neural defects die a few hours after birth.
When Is It Most Important To Increase My Intake Of Folate?
We need to have adequate levels of folate throughout our lives, hence, the importance of leafy green vegetables in our diet. Women of child-bearing age need it more than the average population and pregnant women need it most.
It is crucial that women planning to get pregnant already consume enough folate or take a supplement, because the body will utilise it right upon conception, before tests might confirm that you’re pregnant. The need for folate continues throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding, however it is most important in the first trimester, when the foetus' brain grows.
The best supplement to take is folinic acid rather than folic acid, especially if you have had issues with recurrent loss or miscarriage. Why? The MTHFR gene mutation is a common mutation which effects 1 in 4 people seriously and nearly 1 in 2 people mildly.
Those who have the MTHFR variant called C667T have a 40% to 60% decreased ability to produce the body's most active form of folate called methylfolate (a critical nutrient, affecting neurotransmitter production, DNA regulation, immunity and more). So having this mutation can play a big role in complications during pregnancy.
How Can I Get Enough Folate?
Folate can be taken naturally (from folate-rich plant-based sources as listed below) or in supplements (folinic acid tablets).
What Foods are Rich in Folate?
While supplements can provide adequate levels of folic acid, naturally occurring folate is ideal, and has the added benefit of other vitamins and nutrients such as iron, potassium, phosphorus and calcium already pre-packaged. Some folate rich foods include:
- Spinach / Other Leafy Greens
- Sunflower seeds
- Kelp (sea weed)
- Brussel sprouts
- Lima, black and kidney beans
- Chick peas
- Oranges and orange juice
- Bran flakes, wheat germ and whole-grain bread
- Tomato Juice
Lean red meat, chicken and fish are also good sources of folate.
How Much Folate Do I Need?
Bearing in mind measurements are in micrograms: 1,000 µg = 1mg.
The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends 520-600 µg per day of folate for pregnant women. For lactating mothers, the recommended dietary intake (RDI) is between 450-500 µg a day.
While they have not found any adverse side effects of taking folate in its natural form, in its synthetic form, folic acid, they recommend 800 µg-1,000 µg for pregnancy and during lactation.
Folic acid supplements, which are readily available in health food stores, pharmacies and supermarkets, contain an average of 400 µg per tablet. Be sure to check the label before you buy, because other supplements (especially in multivitamin form and not in purely folic acid) contain only 200 µg.
For all other adults 18 years of age and above, 320 µg — 400 µg is sufficient. Males below 18 need 400 µg; females, 300 µg. Children below 8 years old need 150 µg – 200 µg.
What Happens If I Take Too Much Folate?
When folate is consumed from plant-based sources, the NHMRC has not found any adverse side effects. Too high folic acid levels however can result in adverse neurological effects (insomnia, irritability, nervousness).
So, Are You Consuming Enough Folate?
While its true that other vitamin deficiencies could lead to a host of problems for an unborn child, none could be as serious as a lack of folate in the mother's diet. So go ahead, embark on a green, leafy adventure, and your journey will surely be rewarded ” with a healthy bundle of joy in your arms.
Oh, and if you’re interested in a fantastic organic green superfoods product, take a look at Deep Green Alkalising Superfood. Mixed with juice, smoothies or yoghurt, it's easy to have your children consume it. You can watch a clip about the benefits of taking it below. Enjoy!