Folic Acid in Pregnancy: A Tiny Pill’s Big Role for Healthy Babies

Folic acid is an essential nutrient for pregnant women and their unborn babies. Often found as a supplement in prenatal vitamins, this form of vitamin B plays a critical role in the healthy development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. But what exactly does folic acid do for you and your little one during pregnancy? Recently, researchers from Keele and Nottingham Universities, alongside doctors from University Hospital of North Staffordshire and Derby Children’s Hospital, made a breakthrough discovery. They found a direct link between folic acid supplements during pregnancy and positive DNA changes in newborn babies.

The Importance of Folic Acid

Folic acid, a synthetic form of the naturally occurring folate, is crucial in helping prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in newborns – an umbrella term for major birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 3,000 births in the U.S. are affected by NTDs each year. The good news is that adequate folic acid supplementation in pregnant women can drastically lower the risk of these birth defects.

In addition to reducing the risk of NTDs, folic acid supplementation during pregnancy contributes to the following benefits:

  1. Promotes Healthy Cell Growth and DNA Synthesis: Folic acid plays a significant role in promoting healthy cellular growth and division, making it crucial for the rapid growth experienced during pregnancy and fetal development. Moreover, it has a hand in synthesizing DNA, RNA, and certain amino acids.

  2. Supports the Development of Red Blood Cells: When a woman is pregnant, her body needs extra folic acid for the production of red blood cells for both her and the baby. This is essential, as red blood cells are responsible for delivering oxygen from the lungs to the other organs and tissues in the body.

  3. Can Help Prevent Preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is a dangerous pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure and organ damage – usually the liver and kidneys. Some research suggests that folic acid supplementation can help reduce the risk of preeclampsia.

  4. Aids in the Prevention of Premature Birth and Low Birth Weight: Consuming adequate amounts of folic acid during pregnancy has been linked to a reduced risk of premature birth and low birth weight in babies – both of which can lead to long-term health complications.

Unlocking the Secret of Folic Acid

The research team investigated the effects of folic acid supplementation and its metabolites on DNA methylation reactions, a crucial process in maintaining and controlling gene expression. By analyzing human blood from the umbilical cord, the researchers used a microarray technology that allowed them to examine methylation at over 27,500 sites within the DNA.

The study’s lead scientist, Professor William Farrell, explained that this research is groundbreaking as it suggests that “methylation of particular genes in the baby’s DNA may be the key to unlocking the secret of the action of folic acid.” As a result, they believe that by identifying the specific genes that benefit from folic acid, doctors may be better equipped to predict and potentially prevent pregnancy complications.

Folic Acid Supplementation Recommendations

For women of childbearing age, it is essential to receive adequate amounts of folic acid daily, even if they are not currently pregnant. The general recommendation is to consume 400 micrograms (mcg) per day. However, for pregnant women, the daily recommended amount increases to 600-800 mcg.

Folic acid can be found naturally in many food sources, such as leafy green vegetables, beans, and whole grains. However, consuming enough of these foods daily to meet the recommended amount may be challenging. Thankfully, folic acid is also available as a supplement in many multi-vitamins and prenatal vitamins.

While no supplement can guarantee a complication-free pregnancy, folic acid supplementation comes highly recommended to promote the healthy development and growth of your baby. So, if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, make sure you include folic acid in your daily routine – your little one will thank you for it!