Dr. Phelan By General Practitioner Published:

Folic acid is important for all women considering a baby but did you know that around half of all pregnancies in the UK are unplanned?

Starting a family might not be on your agenda right now, but if you’re planning a pregnancy, or there’s a chance you might become pregnant, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough folic acid.

Why is this so important?

Folic acid – also known vitamin B9 – is vital for the healthy development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord.

It significantly reduces the risk of being born with neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida, a condition where the spine is not formed properly leaving gaps. Often not picked up will the 20-week scan, it can result in a wide range of clinical problems, depending on where the spine is affected.

Symptoms can vary from impaired mobility to bladder or bowel problems to problems with the brain.

The NHS recommends that any woman who might become pregnant takes 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, starting before conception and continuing until after the 12th week of pregnancy.

NTDs will generally develop in the first 28 days of pregnancy – which unfortunately is often before many women even know they’re pregnant and at least two unborn babies develop a condition like spina bifida every day.

Every year, 900 pregnancies are affected by NTDs, and it’s estimated that more than 70% of these could be prevented by folic acid supplementation.

Women are at a higher risk of having a baby with a NTD if they, their partner or family members have similar problems, or if they have had previous pregnancies affected by NTD. Medical conditions such as diabetes can also increase the risk.

Folic acid supplements available from your pharmacy

For most women, an over the counter preparation containing 400 micrograms of folic acid is sufficient.

However, some women will require a higher dose of 5 milligrams. This dose is for women who are at higher risk of NTD’s, who are on certain medications such as some anti-epileptic treatments, have a higher BMI, or who have medical conditions such as diabetes, coeliac disease or sickle cell anaemia. This strength of folic acid will need to be prescribed by your doctor.

Folic acid also plays an important role in the health of all ages members. It’s responsible for cell growth and development and together with vitamin B12, helps the formation of red blood cells.

Both vitamins together help nerve function and the formation of DNA within every body cell.

Men and children, as well as women who are not likely to become pregnant, usually get enough folic acid by eating a diet containing a wide variety of foods.

Good sources are leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts cabbage and broccoli; beans and legumes; oranges and orange juice; wheatbran and other wholegrain foods, and poultry, pork, shellfish and liver.

Folic acid deficiency can cause some general symptoms, including tiredness caused by anaemia, loss of appetite, weight loss, headaches and heart palpitations.

Details of a range of folic acid supplements can be found by searching the Pharmacy2U website.

To find out more about vitamins and nutrition before during and after pregnancy, visit the NHS website.

Dr Alexandra Phelan is a working NHS GP and member of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service.