What is regarded as a “breakthrough” study published in the British Journal of Nutrition has connected high levels of the vitamin folate (also known as vitamin B9 and folic acid) in women in the early stages of pregnancy with higher (and healthier) birth weights.
Conversely, when low levels of folic acid (often due to smoking) are present in the early stages of pregnancy, birth weights tended to be lower (less healthy).
Dr. Caroline Relton of Newcastle University’s School of Clinical Medical Sciences (UK) and her colleagues studied 998 expectant mothers and their babies as patients at West Cumberland Hospital.
The team analyzed blood samples from routine antenatal visits in early pregnancy recording the folate levels in the women’s red blood cells. They also considered lifestyle information, volunteered on a questionnaire, as well as smoking habits and the birth weight of each child.
The results supported the current evidence that higher levels of folic acid in the early stages of pregnancy result in higher birth weights because folate is an essential nutrient that encourages growth and gene development in the fetus.
Smoking can be detrimental because it often reduces a woman’s folate level. It is a significant source of oxidative stress and therefore may alter the ability of the cell to metabolize and store folic acid.
In a case study, one woman gave birth to twins, with healthy birth weights (over 5.5 pounds) after taking folic acid during her pregnancy. Ruth took a daily supplement just before she became pregnant and for the first three months of her pregnancy.
Although the best way to increase folic acid levels is by taking supplements (200 micrograms per day for non-pregnant women and 600 micrograms a day before conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) eating folate-rich foods is also important. These include dark green vegetables like broccoli and spinach, citrus fruits, and wholegrain products like bread or cereals.
In the United States, many foods, including all wheat products, have been fortified with folic acid since 1998 to ensure women get a sufficient level of the vitamin without taking supplements. Previous research has shown that young and poor women are less likely to take supplements.
The new study confirms, however, that many women are still not getting enough folic acid to maintain sufficient folate levels during the critical early stages of pregnancy. This fact supports the call for fortifying more foods in the UK including ones that are lower cost. Currently, many foods supplemented with folic acid are only available under more expensive brand names