Folate & Pregnancy: Why all the hype?

Most people know that folate is important during pre conception and during pregnancy. Some know it’s because it’s needed to prevent neural tube defects and conditions such as spina bifida. But what are some other little known facts about folate?

  • Folate is also known as the vitamin B9 and is the natural form found in foods like dark leafy greens and liver

  • Folic acid on the other hand, is the synthetic form of B9 that’s found in supplements and added to foods

  • Although both terms are often used interchangeably, they are NOT the same thing and excess consumption of folic acid has been associated with higher cancer risk, compromised immune system function and masking B12 deficiency especially when taken out of proportion to the other B vitamins (B12 deficiency can lead to anaemia, peripheral neuropathy symptoms eg. pins and needles in extremities)

  • Confusingly, another nutrient called 5-MTHF has also been added to the mix; 5-MTHF or methylfolate is the biologically active form of B9 that the body can use (folate & folic acid are converted to this form before the body can use it). It’s been in the news lately as people with an MTHFR mutation can’t convert folic acid to its active form (5-MTHF) so supplementing with it directly is key.

The best way to get folate for pregnancy

So what’s the take home message from all this ie. the best way to supplement with folate for your bubba’s health?

  • Current recommendations for folate  intake in preconception and pregnancy is 400-800 mcg/day

  • Make food your main source of folate – your body (for most of us anyway) uses the natural forms of all vitamins and minerals best, and you’re unlikely to overdose when you eat your nutrients. Include plenty of spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, avo, asparagus, kale (like that kale chips!), parsley, liver, chickpeas (hello hummus!), beans (especially pinto & black eyed peas and lentils in your daily diet

  • Folic acid supplementation should not be more than 1000mcg/day, though some studies show increased adverse risks with greater than 100-200mcg/day

  • Look for a supplement containing the other B vitamins or add an extra B complex – these are essential for energy production, metabolism, digestive function, mood and are depleted in high stress, alcohol consumption. When one B is taken out of balance to the others, deficiencies and other issues can occur.

  • Supplementing with 5-MTHF can be beneficial especially if you have a 5-MTHF issue but this can only be diagnosed through testing, which can be expensive

Basically eat your health, supplements can assist but shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all and more is not necessarily better. If you suspect you might have a problem with 5-MTHF and folate conversion, speaking to a functional medicine practitioner and getting confirmation should be your first point of call.
(Out of interest, the popular pregnancy supp Elevit, contains 800mcg folic acid and the other B vits which is great – but can also make you constipated due to its high iron content. There are many better pregnancy supps out there so don’t airways go for what’s most popular!)