What pill should every woman take?

Around 18 months ago I was researching a story on genetic disorders [for an article later published in Women’s Health]. One of the experts I spoke to was Tina-Marié Wessels, a genetic counsellor at the Wits University’s Human Genetics division.

After I’d asked her to explain some of the more complicated bits, I asked Tina-Marié one of my standard “clever questions for specialists”, which was pretty much along the lines of “if there was one thing you could do to [improve your health / avoid getting ill / etc] what would it be?”
Tina-Marié’s answer startled me: she said that the one thing every woman of childbearing age can and should do is take folate – even if you weren’t planning on having kids (keeping in mind that nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned).  

Why folate?

“Folate reduces the risk of neural tube defects and cleft lips and palates during pregnancy,” she said. “It’s necessary for DNA replication; if you don’t have enough folate, it disrupts embryogenesis. If you’re making eggs, you should be on folate.”

Folate is the naturally occurring form of an essential B-vitamin, which is found in foodstuffs [see list below]. The synthetic version is called Folic Acid. Over the last 15 years, a number of foodstuffs – including bread and breakfast cereals – have been fortified or enriched with folic acid, to compensate for insufficient folate intake in people’s diets.

Your body needs folic acid for cell division and DNA synthesis – particularly during early pregnancy, when those things happen pretty rapidly.

Tina-Marié’s advice isn’t new, or even radical. It’s a message healthcare providers and government health services have been openly promoting for years. But we’re patently not listening. Studies have shown that less than 40% of all women regularly take folic acid – I was one of them: I only took folic acid supplements after I found out I was pregnant with both my kids.

Physicians advise taking folic acid for at least a month before conception, and three months after, to reduce the risks of neural tube defects.

I recently met an older woman who was trying to conceive for the first time, and who was already consulting with fertility specialists – none of whom had yet suggested to her that she prepare for possible pregnancy by taking a folic acid supplement.  
I gave her a short, friendly lecture and a big hug of encouragement. The next day I went off to my own pharmacy and got my own little jar of essential vitamins.

How much do you need?

The recommended daily dose for women “of childbearing age” is 400mcg of folic acid per day, taken through food and supplements. [FYI: even if you’re not a woman, you should be getting the same amount of folic acid – the vitamin has numerous health and fertility benefits for men]. If your family has a history of neural tube defects this amount may be increased – but this needs to be done in consultation with a specialist, as too much can be just as damaging as too little. Your pharmacy or health shop will stock plain folic acid; it’s also contained in most pregnancy multi-vitamin supplements.   

Foods that are naturally rich in folate include leafy greens – spinach, kale, even lettuce – brussel sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, avocado, and legumes (beans). Foods that are enriched or fortified with folic acid may contribute as much as 190mcg of folic acid a day, but this is still not enough to reach your RDA.

Need to know: Smoking, alcohol consumption and stress can all interfere with your body’s folate levels. Studies have also shown that certain medication – including aspirin, birth control pills, anti-inflammatories and cholesterol-lowering meds – can also deplete folic acid. 

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

Have you asked your doctor about your pre-pregnancy health?

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
The ANC's leadership race is heating up. Who do you think will be elected party president at Nasrec in December?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has got it in the bag
7% - 722 votes
I foresee a second term for Cyril Ramaphosa
83% - 8504 votes
Don’t discount a Zweli Mkhize win
10% - 1016 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.