Folic acid is a synthetic form of the vitamin folate. Folic acid is converted into the active form of the vitamin in the body. Folate is the natural form of the vitamin.
During pregnancy the daily folate or folic acid requirement rises significantly to 550 folate equivalents, namely 550 µg (micrograms) of folate or 275µg of folic acid. Normal food – in other words, food which has not been fortified with folic acid – generally provides only 200-250 micrograms of folate. We therefore advise pregnant women to take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid per day in tablet form in order to prevent the foetus from developing abnormalities.
Since folic acid is especially important in the first few weeks of pregnancy, you should ideally start to take it four to twelve weeks before pregnancy. It is during these first weeks that the nervous system develops and the neural tube which surrounds the spinal cord closes. Studies have shown that a high level of folic acid reduces the risk of birth defects, specifically spina bifida, by 50-80%.
A child which is born with spina bifida will require an operation immediately after birth. Even if the operation is successful, those affected generally have lifelong problems with walking and bladder control. In Switzerland, approximately 0.1- 4.0% of expectant mothers have a folic acid deficiency and 15 to 20 children are born with spina bifida every year.