One of the most important members of the B-group of vitamins, folate or folic acid (when it is taken in dietary form) is a must for mums-to-be. Folic acid aids in the growth of the fetus’ neural tube - which leads to the formation of the spinal cord, brain, and the newborn’s nervous system - and is thus a must-have for all women who are either pregnant, or looking forward to a pregnancy.
As per medical reports, folate supplements taken before conception and during pregnancy can prevent seven out of every ten cases of congenital neural tube defects. It is therefore recommended that women of child bearing age take folate supplements daily.
Where do you get your folate from?
Like most vitamins, women get most of their folate from their diet. However, the amount of folate can differ from person to person, because the vitamin is affected by how the food is cooked and stored. It therefore becomes extremely difficult to predict exactly how much folate one is consuming via diet.
While the recommended daily dose of folate is about 400 micrograms (mcg) per day, pregnant women are advised to intake around 600 mcg on a daily basis. If you are planning a pregnancy, experts advise that you increase your daily intake of folate/folic acid for at least one month prior to conception.
In order to achieve the desired daily dose, you can:
- Eat more folate-rich foods. Folate is present in a variety of green vegetables (such as asparagus, spinach, and broccoli) and fruits (primarily oranges, bananas and strawberries). Legumes (such as chickpeas, dried beans and lentils), cereals and nuts are also good sources of the vitamin.
- Eat more fortified cereals and foods that have a higher content of folic acid, or B vitamins.
- Take folate supplements.
Why do you need folate supplements?
Folate is a highly temperature sensitive vitamin. For instance, if you were to eat 100 gms of raw spinach, you would ideally be consuming about 49% of your daily recommended dose. However, if you cook the spinach, the amount of folate available reduces to 38%. Overcooking foods and fruits can further reduce the vitamin availability.
It is also important to remember that folate is a water soluble vitamin and unlike other vitamins (Vitamin A, D, E, and K) it is not stored in the body and needs to be replenished on a daily basis. Research suggests that approximately 22% of women between the ages of 12 and 49 years do not have enough folate in their bodies to prevent neural tube defects in the case of a pregnancy.
Moreover, if you have any digestive issues, this too can further reduce the amount of folate absorbed via diet. Women who suffer from IBS or Celiac’s disease may find that their body does not absorb and retain the same amount of folate as others do.
Furthermore, if you are someone with a family or personal history of neural tube defects, or have a child with a similar defect, then you might need an even higher daily value of folate than normal. Women with such medical history, or those who may suffer from, or may be at a risk of contracting, type 1 diabetes may have to take about 5 milligrams (mg) of folate daily. This is about five times the normal dose, and cannot be achieved via diet alone.
Enter, folate supplements.
What kind of folate supplements are the best?
Many fortified foods and supplements provide folate as Folic Acid. This is another form of the B vitamin, which is converted to folate in the body via an enzyme. However, this enzyme’s conversion capacity is generally low, leading to an increase in unutilized folic acid in the bloodstream. Studies have linked the presence of folic acid to negative health effects.
Therefore, the best form of folate to take as supplements is Methyl folate (chemically known as Methyl tetrahydrofolate). This form of the vitamin does not need to be converted further, and can be readily used by the body. It is also much better absorbed than other artificial forms of folate.
So whether you are using folate supplements for pregnancy, or just as part of a healthy diet, ensure that you are consuming it in the form of methyl folate. Stay away from foods and supplements that are fortified with, or contain, folic acid.
The benefits of folate supplements
Undoubtedly one of the most crucial contributors to a healthy pregnancy, folate supplements also have other proven health benefits.
- Methylfolate has been shown to be fundamental to the growth, renewal, and total functioning of our body’s cells, tissues, and organs.
- There is a clinically proven link between folate consumption and healthy mood, memory, cognitive functions, and behavior.
- Folate is also important for correct signaling and communication in our nervous system. Our brains use this vitamin to make the key neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are linked to our mood and feelings of wellness and happiness.
- Folate is also linked to the brain’s healthy production of melatonin; the body’s main sleep hormone.
The bottom line
Folate has been recognized as a vitamin that has a key role to play in pregnancies, but it also has many other important functions and can affect our moods and behaviors. Research has found that people with depression have low levels of this vitamin as compared to people with a happier disposition. While science is still unlocking the mysteries of this vitamin molecule, we need to work towards ensuring we get our daily recommended value of this supplement in order to keep those smiles intact!