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Why folic acid is important when you're trying to conceive

Find out why getting your daily dose of folic acid is so important when you're trying to conceive.
Folic acid is a synthetic B vitamin (B9) that also occurs naturally in many foods and is particularly important to your diet when you are trying to conceive. The Department of Health recommend that women trying to get pregnant should have 400mcg (micro grams) of folic acid a day.

Why do I need it?

Getting enough folic acid when you are trying to conceive is beneficial because it can greatly improve foetal development once you do fall pregnant. It helps with the early growth and development of your baby, as well as the development of the placenta.

The right amount of folic acid in your diet can help prevent neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida (when the spinal cord does not completely form). It may also decrease the risk of miscarriage.

Folic acid helps your body to produce red blood cells, vital hormones like serotonin and norepinephrine, and to construct DNA - all crucial processes that aid your baby's development.

How much do I need?

Experts recommend that you have 400mcg of folic acid a day when trying to conceive.

Although folic acid occurs naturally in many folate-rich foods, it can be difficult to eat enough of these to meet the 400mcg target every day. Therefore it is a good idea to take a daily supplement of folic acid, to complement your diet.

You can find folic acid supplements at your local pharmacy or at many health food and vitamin shops. Make sure that you check the label to make sure each supplement will be delivering your 400mcg a day.

When taking your supplement, it is best to eat something beforehand, as it won't be absorbed as well on an empty stomach.

As well as taking your daily supplement, it's also worthwhile structuring your diet so that you are eating plenty of foods that are rich in folic acid.

Folate-rich foods

Some foods that will up your daily folic acid intake include:
  • Bran flakes

  • Eggs

  • Salmon

  • Orange

  • Papaya

  • Leafy green vegetables

  • Other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, potatoes, asparagus, and broccoli.
When cooking vegetables that contain folic acid, take care not to over-cook them, as this can damage the vitamin's beneficial qualities. Try steaming your vegetables, or cook them with the minimum amount of boiling water.

When should I start increasing my folic acid intake?

If you are trying to conceive, it is best to start taking folic acid supplements as soon as possible. Ideally, they should be taken for three months prior to conception, but obviously this can be hard to plan precisely.

If you have recently decided to try for a baby, or have been trying for a while, it is best to start getting the recommended dose of folic acid as soon as possible. Otherwise, you should take it as soon as you know you are pregnant, and continue to do so throughout your first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

After this point you can continue to take folic acid if you wish, but its effects won't be as beneficial as taking it before your baby is conceived. The effects of folic acid are most pronounced in your baby's earliest stages of development, so it is best to take it to both pre-empt and coincide with this.

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