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Recent research provides strong evidence that women who take supplements of folic acid for a period of time before and after conception can reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects (NTDs) such as Spina Bifida in their baby. While folic acid has been shown to help prevent neural tube defects, it is still not known exactly how it works or what other factors may be involved. Some women will still find that their babies have a neural tube defect even though they have taken the recommended level of folic acid.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid, also known as folate or folacin, is one of the eight B vitamins. Because it is used by all cells of the body for growth, the daily requirement for folic acid increases during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Why do some women have low Folate levels?

Poor folate status may result from multifactorial dietary and environmental conditions, including poor eating habits, stringent dieting for weight loss, drug and alcohol abuse, and cigarette smoking. Oral contraceptive users may have lower folate concentrations than non-users as estrogen and progesterone could lower plasma and erythrocyte folate levels. After the termination of oral contraceptive use, women are advised to supplement their diet with folate.

What should you do?

The following are Health and Welfare Canada's recommendations:

  • As early as possible when planning a pregnancy, women should consult their physician about folic acid supplements.

  • All women of child-bearing potential should follow Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating and take care to choose more foods higher in folate.

  • Women who have had a previous pregnancy with an NTD are at higher risk of having another affected pregnancy. These women should consult their physician about folic acid supplements.

How much folic acid should you take?

Women should consult their doctor about taking a folic acid supplement when planning a pregnancy, especially if they have had a previous NTD-affected pregnancy. Most healthy women should take 0.4 mg of folic acid every day. You should take 4mg or 5mg folic acid every day before and while you are pregnant if :

  • you have diabetes or epilepsy,

  • you have family such as brothers, sisters, parents, or cousins who have conditions caused by neural tube defects, or

  • you have given birth to a baby with neural tube defect.

What are ways to increase the intake of folic acid?

A daily intake of 5 to 12 servings of grain products and 5 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit is important. Women should also make an effort to choose foods higher in folate more often. Some good or excellent food sources of folate include dark green vegetables, corn, dried peas, beans and lentils, and orange juice.


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