During pregnancy, a woman requires a substantially higher daily dose of folate or folic acid (the chemically manufactured form of the vitamin folate). A balanced diet generally provides only 200-250 micrograms of folate. Pregnant women are advised to take a supplement of at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, primarily to avoid potential foetal abnormalities.
As folic acid is particularly essential in the first weeks of pregnancy, women who are trying to conceive should ideally start taking a folic acid supplement four to twelve weeks before they hope to become pregnant. Studies have shown that a high level of folic acid reduces the risk of birth defects, specifically spina bifida, by 50-80%. This is because the embryo's nerve development takes place very early on, during which the neural tube around the sensitive spinal cord closes.
A child born with spina bifida requires immediate surgery. Even if the operation is a success, most of those affected will have problems with walking and bladder control for their entire lives. In Switzerland around 0.1% to 4% of pregnant women do not receive enough folic acid, and every year 15 to 20 children are born with spina bifida.
Foods with folic acid
To ensure you get enough folate, it's recommended that you eat plenty of vegetables, salads, pulses, whole grain and dairy products, and fish (e.g. salmon). But be careful as folate is water-soluble and very sensitive to light and heat. The best option is raw food, as food loses up to half of its folate when cooked. Hot dishes with vegetables should be cooked only briefly. Wheatgerm tops the list of foods containing folate and is easy to combine with salads or muesli. But steer clear of liver. While it contains plenty of folate, it's also rich in vitamin A, which can harm the unborn child when ingested in excessive doses.
SWICA is a health partner to Stiftung Folsäure Schweiz (Swiss Folic Acid Foundation). You'll find more information on pregnancy and nutrition in the video for the latest edition of the Faktor-F online magazine.