Folic Acid May Help Prevent Premature Birth

Long known to help prevent birth defects, folic acid may also help prevent premature births.

In a large study that included 38,033 pregnant women, researchers found that women who took folic acid supplements for a year or longer before conception had a 70 percent decreased risk of preterm birth between 20 and 28 weeks of gestation, while risk of preterm birth during weeks 28 through 32 was reduced by 50 percent.

It has been suggested that folic acid regulates certain genes that otherwise malfunction to cause early labor. The next step in researching this phenomenon will be to look into these underlying mechanisms to determine better forms of prevention.

A premature birth is one that occurs before 37 weeks of gestation. Improved medical knowledge and technology have made survival for these small infants more likely. Of the babies born at 28 weeks or after, 90 percent are expected to survive according to the US National Institute of Health (NIH). The earlier a baby is delivered, the greater the risk of serious complications, including bleeding in the brain, infection, delayed growth and intestinal problems.

A significant decrease in spontaneous preterm delivery was observed in women who took folic acid for one year prior to conception. As expected, in this study it was observed that fewer babies were born with brain and spinal cord defects and cerebral palsy.

These findings are preliminary and are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. They do however, underline the importance of having folic acid before conception to help prevent serious complications such as, birth defects and premature births.

Folic acid, also known as folate, folacin, pteroylglutamic acid, or vitamin B9, is a B group vitamin required for DNA and RNA synthesis, and for development of the nervous system, particularly the closure of the neural tube, which occurs during the first 6 weeks of pregnancy. Women may not know that they are pregnant for up to 4 weeks, so ensuring adequate nutrient intake of folate around the time of conception is essential.

As many pregnancies are unplanned, experts recommend that folic acid should be taken by all women of reproductive age (from about 15-45 years old), who are capable of becoming pregnant, who are planning a pregnancy, or are in early pregnancy. It is important that women take folic acid as some women can be pregnant for up to four weeks and not be aware of it. For folic acid to be effective in preventing birth defects, it must be consumed before conception and during the first four weeks of pregnancy. For example, in the US alone, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned.

So, while there are many foods rich in folic acid (see below), experts still recommend that women in particular, take folic acid supplements. The World Health Organization (WHO) for instance recommends that men and women should take 400mcg of folic acid per day, while pregnant and lactating (breastfeeding) women may require up to 600mcg daily.

Apart from supplements, where can you find folic acid. Foods containing folic acid include cereals and other grain products, as well as leafy green vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, fruits, dried beans, lentils, peas and nuts.

So for your health, and that of your family, try to maintain a diet rich in folic acid and include supplements in your diet, especially if you feel your diet might be inadequate..

Below is a table that may assist you in getting an adequate amount of folic acid in your diet.

Food Size Amountmcg) Daily%*
Dark-green leafy vegetables
100g/3.5oz.
120-160
30-40
Other vegetables
100g/3.5oz.
40-100
10-25
Fruit (particularly citrus)
100g/3.5oz.
50-100
12-20
Beans (legumes)
100g/3.5oz.
50-300
12-75
Whole grains
100g/3.5oz.
60-120
15-30
Breakfast cereals
100g/3.5oz.
100-400
25-100
Chicken liver
100g/3.5oz.
770
193
Braised beef liver
100g/3.5oz.
217
54
Lentils cooked
1/2 cup
180
45
Chickpeas
1/2 cup
141
35
Asparagus
1/2 cup
132
33
Spinach cooked
1/2 cup
131
33
Black Beans
1/2 cup
128
32
Burritos with beans
2
118
30
Kidney beans
1/2 cup
115
29
Baked beans with pork
1 cup
92
23
Lima beans
1/2 cup
78
20
Tomato juice
1 cup
48
12
Brussel sprouts
1/2 cup
47
12
Orange
1 medium
47
12
Broccoli, cooked
1/2 cup
39
10
Fast-food french fries
large order
38
10
Wheat germ
1 tbsp
38
10
Fortified white bread
1 slice
38
10

* based on Daily value for folate of 400 micrograms