Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate, an essential B-group vitamin found in supplements and fortified foods.
Folic acid plays an important role in supporting a healthy pregnancy by reducing the risk of having a baby with a Neural Tube Defect (NTD).
According to a Safefood campaign supported by the HSE, all women of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folic acid a day. As Ireland has the highest rates of babies born with spina bifida in the EU, they recommend women to start taking folic acid before you get pregnant even if you are not trying to conceive.
The public awareness campaign states almost half of pregnancies are unplanned in Ireland however a baby's spine and brain start developing in the first weeks of pregnancy. The neural tubes which later become the baby's spinal cord, spine, brain and skull form early in pregnancy and close around the fifth week after conception before. By the time most women realise they are expecting, it might be too late.
Folic acid helps your baby's spine and brain development while also reducing the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida, without healthy development your unborn baby is at risk.
Spina bifida is a birth defect and translated it literally means 'split spine' and it is the most common neural tube defect affecting one in every 1000 children born here in Ireland. In layman's terms, it is when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly in the womb.
Spina bifida can range from mild to severe depending on the type of defect, location, size and complications, and the three main types of spina bifida are occulta, meningocele and myelomeningocele.
Complications of spina bifida include mobility issues, orthopaedic complications, bladder and bowel problems and permanent weakness or paralysis of the legs amongst many others.
According to Safefood, during pregnancy women cannot get enough folic acid from food alone. However, foods rich in folic acid include leafy green vegetables such as spinach, citrus fruits, beans, bread, cereals, eggs and even bananas.
It should be taken at least two months before you conceive and during the first three months of pregnancy. It can help reduce the risk of your baby developing a birth defect by simply taking 400 micrograms every day.
Folic acid can be found in most chemists, health stores and supermarkets. The supplement can be purchased for as little as €6 for a years supply, working out as a few cents a day. The essential early pregnancy vitamin is also available on prescription if you have a medical card.