Folic acid

Folic acid is a vitamin that's essential for the healthy development of a baby. If you're planning a pregnancy or there's a chance that you might get pregnant you should make sure you're getting enough folic acid.

Our friends at the charity Shine have put together this handy guide to everything you need to know about folic acid.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is one of the B group of vitamins (B9). It plays an important part in everyone’s diet, as it is responsible for cell growth and development. However, it becomes even more important for women prior to, and during the early stages of, pregnancy.

The NHS recommends that women who might become pregnant should take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily.

Why is taking folic acid so important?

Folic acid is vital to support the healthy development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Before you are even aware that you’re pregnant, your baby’s brain and spinal cord are already forming. By having enough folic acid in your blood at this important time you help to ensure that they develop properly. Many women don't realise that taking folic acid can help to avoid the possibility of some very serious consequences.

Folic acid helps to prevent serious birth defects affecting the brain and spinal cord. These are known as neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Spina bifida results in lifelong disability. Most people with spina bifida are wheelchair users. Anencephaly (where the brain and skull fail to form fully) is almost always fatal. Neural tube defects affect over 900 pregnancies each year in the UK, that’s 1 in 1000 pregnancies.

Taking folic acid at the correct time and dose means reducing the risk of your pregnancy being affected by up to 72%.

When should I start taking it?

Women who are planning to get pregnant should ideally start taking folic acid at least three months prior to conception and continue to do so until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Almost half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, so it’s important for women to have sufficient levels of folic acid in their body just in case. Doctors recommend that all women who could get pregnant, should take 400mcg of folic acid every day (either as a single supplement or part of a multivitamin).

What if I’m already pregnant?

If you are less than 12 weeks pregnant, then start taking folic acid straight away and continue until the end of the 12th week of your pregnancy.

How much folic acid should I take?

For most women the recommended daily dose will be 400mcg taken either as a single tablet or as part of a multivitamin.

Some women are at an increased risk of having an affected pregnancy and will need to take a much higher 5mg dose. This dose is only available on prescription from your GP, so it’s important to consult your GP before getting pregnant if:

  • either you or your partner have spina bifida, have had a previously affected pregnancy or have a family history of NTD
  • you have diabetes
  • you take anti-epilepsy medication
  • you have coeliac disease.

What is Go Folic!?

Go Folic! is a campaign which aims to inspire all women who could get pregnant to take 400mcg of folic acid each day before they become pregnant.

Why do we need a folic acid campaign?

A Medical Research Council study in 1991 confirmed that folic acid could help to prevent the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects by up to 72%. A £2.3 million government campaign in 1995/6 aimed to generate public awareness of the importance of folic acid. It succeeded in raising awareness, but failed to increase the number of women taking folic acid before and during pregnancy.

Since the mid 1990s very little has been done to maintain public awareness and, most importantly, to increase women’s intake of folic acid. As the national charity supporting those living with these lifelong disabilities, Shine (Spina bifida . Hydrocephalus . Information . Networking . Equality) decided to take matters into their own hands and launched Go Folic! in 2010.

Using a multimedia approach, Go Folic! is using innovative new ways to engage with women in order to increase their understanding of why they need to take folic acid. If women are to act on the recommendations and increase their intake of folic acid, they need to fully understand the potential risks involved if they don’t.

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