What is folic acid?
Folic acid, which is also known as folate,
is a B group vitamin. Like most other vitamins, it cannot be made in the body,
so it must be taken either in dietary form or by means of a folic acid
supplement in tablet form.
Folic acid plays an important role in the
growth of the baby in early pregnancy.
Why is folic acid important during
Research has shown that a lack of folic
acid is linked to the development of neural tube defects in the developing
foetus. Neural tube defects are a major group of birth defects that occur when
the brain or spinal cord doesn’t form properly during the early part of
pregnancy. The incidence of neural tube defects is higher in Ireland than in other
European countries and the relative deficiency of folic acid in our diet
contributes to this.
Taking extra folic acid prior to
conception and throughout the first 12 weeks of pregnancy is known to reduce
the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida by up
What is Spina Bifida?
Spina Bifida is the most common type of
neural tube defect in Ireland. In Spina Bifida, a lesion affects the spine and
the spinal cord and it may result in permanent and severe disability for the
remainder of the child’s life.
Since the spine is one of the first stages
of foetal development, a neural tube defect may already be present before the
mother realises she is even pregnant. This is one of the main reasons why women
who are hoping to become pregnant are advised to start increasing their intake
of folic acid at least two months prior to conception.
While there is a small element of genetic
tendency involved in Spina Bifida, there is very strong evidence to suggest
that improvements in the mother’s diet, most particularly in her intake of
folic acid, can prevent this condition from developing.
Can I get folic acid from food?
Foods rich in folic acid include all green
leafy vegetables such as: cabbage; cauliflower; broccoli; Brussels sprouts;
lettuce and spinach. It is also found in green beans; peas; potatoes; bread;
bananas; oranges; grapefruit; brown rice; eggs; carrots; nuts and fish.
Some foods can also be fortified with
folic acid – this means adding folic acid to the food at the processing stage. Many
foods – such as bread and cereal products already have this fortification, and these
products will state that they contain extra folic acid on their packaging.
A National Committee on Folic Acid
Fortification was set up by the Department of Health and Children in 2005 to
examine possible options for the fortification of more foods with folic acid. As
a result of a public consultation on the issue, the Committee has recommended mandatory
fortification with folic acid of most white, brown and wholemeal breads on sale
in Ireland and this is now expected to be implemented. This measure is hoped to
reduce the nation’s high incidence of neural tube defects.
Why do I need to take a folic acid
While folic acid can be found in many foods,
it is difficult to get enough folic acid from the diet alone to protect your
unborn baby. Even with the proposed fortification of bread, the amount of folic
acid that can be obtained from breads will not be enough to provide women with
the full amount they need for protection during pregnancy.
This means that women of childbearing age
are recommended to take folic acid supplements (containing 400 micrograms of
folic acid) for at least two months prior to conception and for the first 12
weeks of their pregnancy, in addition to the folic acid they obtain in their
diet. Folic acid supplements cannot harm the developing foetus.
Where can I obtain folic acid tablets?
Folic acid tablets can be purchased over
the counter (without prescription), in your local pharmacy or in health food
stores. They are usually sold in a handy dispenser which holds a 28-day supply
of tablets. If you have a medical card you can get them free of charge on
prescription from your doctor.