Pregnant women are overdoing it on folic acid and not getting enough of most other key nutrients

One third of pregnant women are taking far more folic acid than they need, a study  published Friday suggests. 

Despite their zeal for taking the crucial prenatal supplements, at least 10 percent are still deficient in other nutrients, like vitamins A, D, E and B6, as well as zinc, magnesium and calcium. 

Women who take folic acid in pregnancy have been shown to have consistently lower rates of babies born with birth defects like spina bifada. 

You can’t take too much folic acid itself, but excess amounts of the nutrient can mask other deficiencies such as lacking B12, which can led to nerve damage. 

Purdue University scientists are advising that doctors revise and clarify nutritional recommendations for pregnant women to help ensure that women get balanced nutrition – and aren’t throwing money away on more supplements than they need.  

Prenatal vitamins help ensure pregnant women and their developing babies are healthy – but most are getting too much folic acid and iron, and not enough other nutrients (file) 

We all need folate, a form of vitamin B contained in folic acid, but it’s particularly essential to women who may become or are pregnant. 

Just four weeks into pregnancy – before most women even know they are carrying an embryo – a crucial step in development is happening: the neural tube is closing.

The neural tube will become the entire central nervous system, including the spinal cord and brain. 

But if it doesn’t close properly, children may be left with openings or protrusions along their spines or skulls. 

More importantly than the cosmetic defects and depending upon where along the spine or skull the opening develops, these issues may be accompanied by bladder gastrointestinal problems, heart problems, nerve system issues or even paralysis.

In order for the tube to close as it should, the mother’s body needs to be capable of creating plenty of new cells. 

Folate, or folic acid, is crucial to ensuring that that happens. 

Foods like nuts, beans and leafy greens like spinach naturally contain folate, while companies add the nutrient to some ‘enriched’ foods, like grains, cereals and pastas. 

Most of us can consume enough folic acid through our diets to keep us healthy, but women need an extra boost to support the development of an embryo and it may be more than they can get from diet alone.   

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women start taking 400 micrograms of folic acid for at least a month before they try to conceive, if they have a plan to do so. 

Once a woman is pregnant, ACOG suggests she get 600 micrograms and up to 800 micrograms a day. Women who have already had a pregnancy affected by spina bifida or another neural tube defect should take even more. 

Pregnant women typically reach their recommended daily intake levels by taking prenatal vitamins recommended or provided to them by their doctors. 

These vitamins are jam-packed with a host of nutrients, including crucial calcium, iron, and folic acid.  

But according to the new study, published in JAMA Obstetrics and Oncology, many women are taking very high daily doses of folic acid, unnecessarily. 

In their analysis of over 1,000 women, the Purdue researchers discovered that no pregnant women got more than the recommended daily dose of folate from diet alone, but one third of women who took supplements did. 

They also found that women were taking more iron than they needed to support healthy fetal development. 

People can actually overdose on iron, which can lead to brain and organ damage. Overdoing folic acid won’t cause actual damage, but it may mask low levels of another B vitamin, B12, deficiencies of which can cause nerve damage. 

‘Without the use of dietary supplements, most women fail to achieve the recommendations for iron intake and about one-third fail to meet recommendations for folate intake,’ write the Purdue study authors. 

‘However, use of a dietary supplement substantially increases the intake for both these nutrients beyond the [upper tolerable level]. 

‘As no women exceed the UL from foods alone, these data could be used to help health care practitioners guide the choice of dietary supplement based on the amount of nutrients that are necessary.’