The importance of folic acid
It is important to get enough folic acid both when you’re trying for a baby and in the early stages of pregnancy. Folate is the naturally occurring form of this B vitamin (also sometimes known as B9) found in a number of foods, especially vegetables such as leafy greens. Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin mostly found in fortified foods and vitamin supplements.
It can be quite difficult to get enough folate from natural food sources, as the body does not absorb (and use) all of the folate that we eat. Storing foods for long periods of time and cooking losses can also lead to lower folate intakes.
For these reasons it is recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition that a 400 microgram (μg) folic acid supplement should be taken for at least 1 month before and at least 12 weeks after conception, although some women may have higher needs. Fortified foods may also be another way to help top up dietary intakes.
Folic acid is particularly important because it helps to support cell division and the development of the spinal cord – which is already being formed in the first 28 days of pregnancy! For these reasons folic acid helps to protect against certain birth defects, such as spina bifida (when the baby’s spinal cord does not close properly).