Eating well and taking folic acid is important mom-to-be advice. Folic acid is important for a woman's wellness at any stage of life, but a woman of child-bearing age should know it plays a vital role in preventing neural tube defects in the fetus when taken prior to conception and during pregnancy.
By incorporating folic acid into your diet, your body can produce and maintain new cells. But what is folic acid? And how can you work it into your diet?
Let's dive deeper into the world of this important nutrient by answering some of the most common questions about folic acid.
Folic Acid Versus Folate: What's the Difference?
Folic acid and folate are both forms of vitamin B9; however, one is man-made and the other occurs naturally in the foods we eat:
Folate for Pregnancy: Its Essential Role
We all have been told that taking a folic acid supplement is important when you're pregnant — but why? Firstly, this vitamin plays an important role in preventing anemia.
During pregnancy, blood plasma volume increases, creating a demand for increase in red blood cells to support the growth of the fetus. When folate levels are inadequate in the body, it produces large, poorly formed red blood cells. This condition is called macrocytic anemia, or vitamin-deficient anemia. To prevent this condition, folate is required to keep up with the production of red blood cells, which helps keep blood flow healthy for expecting mothers and their babies, too.
Secondly, folate helps to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in a developing fetus. NTDs affect the development of the baby's brain and spinal cord between 21 and 28 days after conception.
One in every 33 newborns in the United States is born with a birth defect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. To prevent neural tube and brain and spinal cord defects, getting adequate folate intake for pregnancy — before and throughout — is key.
In addition, to reduce the risk of premature births, women planning on getting pregnant should take a supplement that contains a form of folate at least 12 months prior to conception.
How Can This Vitamin Benefit All Women?
Even if you're not planning to become pregnant, getting adequate folate in your diet is still important.
Folate plays a pivotal role in tissue growth and cell function, and it works with vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and vitamin C to break down and create new proteins. Cellular regeneration is an ongoing process in the body; our skin layers, nails and hair grow daily, which requires protein and DNA production.
"A healthy diet includes foods rich in folate such as asparagus, leafy greens, avocado, fortified pasta or cereal, and eggs. It is essential for rapidly growing cells. Therefore, folate plays an important role in gut health, immunity, and to prevent some forms of anemia. Our general health depends upon it," says Mary Weiler, PhD, RDN, a pediatric research scientist with Abbott.
Research also suggests that folate may play a role in reducing the side effects of menopause. In one U.S. study in the Journal of Caring Sciences, menopausal women who supplemented 1 milligram of folic acid daily saw decreases in the severity, duration and frequency of their hot flashes.
How Much Folate Do Women Need?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance of folic acid for adult women is 400 micrograms (mcg) daily. That recommendation climbs to 600 mcg during a pregnancy and 500 during the lactation period. And because 22% of women between the ages of 12 and 49 don't have enough folate in their bodies to prevent neural tube defects, getting this amount is crucial.
Women who have a history of neural tube defects should consume even more folic acid, though. The National Institutes of Health recommend these women consume between 4,000 and 5,000 mcg of a folate supplement each day, at least one month before becoming pregnant. This should continue through the first three months of pregnancy to help ensure the best chance of keeping birth defects at bay.
Adding Folate to Your Diet
The best way to get the recommended amount of this nutrient is through a balanced diet, but many women opt for supplements to ensure adequacy. Before taking any supplements, though, be sure to talk to your healthcare professional to determine what is right for your specific needs.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tasty sources of folate in easily accessible foods, including many fruits and vegetables.
Folate is important for all women, but if you're pregnant or planning to conceive, talk to your doctor to make sure you're getting all the nutrition you need.
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The Role of HMOs in Reducing NEC
Welcoming a new baby into the world should be an exciting time if you're an expecting parent. But when your child is born premature, it's normal to worry about the possible health challenges and complications they may face. Necrotizing enterocolitis, also known as NEC, is a rare condition that premature babies may develop during their first weeks of life. Though NEC can be managed, its effect on a child's health can be serious. NEC prevention may also be possible, according to new preliminary studies. Emerging preclinical research from Johns Hopkins and Abbott suggests that when premature babies are fed breast milk, the presence of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) in the milk may help reduce their chances of developing NEC. We sat down with Rachael Buck, Ph.D., a research fellow at Abbott Nutrition, to discuss necrotizing enterocolitis and the promising research surrounding it. What Is Necrotizing Enterocolitis? NEC is a disease that can affect newborns by causing inflammation in their intestines. With NEC, bacteria inside the intestinal tract can leak into the intestinal wall. Babies with NEC require a period of gut rest, which means they are temporarily nourished by intravenous nutrition. NEC may be fatal, depending upon how severely NEC affects the newborn, Buck explains. The specific cause of NEC is unknown, but it's most often seen in very low birth weight premature babies. In the United States, about 10% of babies who are born prematurely develop NEC. "While there are available NEC treatments, preventive strategies to aid infants at high risk for the disease are needed," says Buck. One prevention strategy that's already showing promise involves the use of HMOs. In new preclinical research from Johns Hopkins and Abbott, HMOs were shown to effectively prevent instances of necrotizing enterocolitis in animal models. What Are Human Milk Oligosaccharides?