The One Nutrient Your Prenatal Multi-Vitamin Must Have

The Importance of Folate In Prenatal Care

Since energy, protein, vitamin and mineral needs increase during pregnancy, eating a varied nutrient-rich diet is very important for the health of mom and baby. Nevertheless, it may still be difficult to get adequate amounts of key nutrients. Fortunately, this is where a prenatal vitamin can step in and, although it is not a substitute for good nutrition, it can provide essential nutrients that complement a healthy diet.

Should I Take a Prenatal Vitamin?

A prenatal vitamin is a supplement that carries higher levels of nutrients than standard supplements due to increased nutrient demands during pregnancy. Consider supplements as an insurance policy. On days when you aren’t able to fit in enough iron-rich foods, for instance, a prenatal vitamin can act as a cushion, thus helping to ensure you get more of the nutrients you need.

It is especially important to take a prenatal vitamin even if you are trying to conceive but not yet pregnant, and here’s why:

A great deal of fetal development occurs within the first 4 weeks of pregnancy, a time when some women are not even yet aware that they are pregnant.

To provide the necessary nutrients required for healthy fetal growth as well as to help avoid nutrient deficient-associated birth defects—discussed in more detail next, it is best to take prenatal vitamins even before you are pregnant.

Folate: Critical For Fetal Nervous System Development

As mentioned above, some nutrients are needed closely following conception. One such nutrient is folate. Folate is a B-vitamin found in foods such as:

  • Lentils
  • Legumes
  • Leafy greens
  • Broccoli

Although often confused with folic acid, its synthetic counterpart found in supplements and fortified foods, folate is the vitamin’s natural form. Upon consumption folate is more readily converted to its most bioactive form, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-methylTHF). When folic acid is consumed, it is also converted to 5-methylTHF but requires a few additional steps.


During pregnancy, folate and/or folic acid is crucial for DNA synthesis, placental formation, healthy maternal blood supply, and fetal growth. In particular, this vitamin is necessary for nervous system development.

The neural tube, which develops into the fetal brain and spinal cord, closes by the first month of gestation. If a deficiency in folate occurs, neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly can occur.

For over two decades, folic acid supplementation and food fortification has shown to be beneficial for fetal development. Still, recent research has shown that some women have difficulty metabolizing folic acid due to a gene mutation that corresponds with the enzyme needed to convert it to 5-methylTHF.

According to a research review by Obeid, Holzgreve, and Pietrzik published in the Journal of Perinatal Medicine,

“Individuals who [have] this polymorphism have lower folate concentrations, they show less response to folic acid supplementation, and have an increased risk for neural tube defects.”

When malfunctions in folate metabolism occur, this also increases the risk of recurrent miscarriages, preeclampsia, preterm delivery, and Down syndrome.

In light of this new research, genetic testing is encouraged among women who have suffered from recurring miscarriages or infertility. If you discover that you carry the gene mutation, talk with your physician about other available folate supplement options.

How Much Folate Is Necessary?

There are many different prenatal vitamins on the market, each differing in vitamins and minerals, amounts of nutrients, and sources of ingredients. It can be very overwhelming!

The US Department of Health and Human Services explains,

“Women who are able to get pregnant need 400 to 800 mcg or micrograms of folic acid every day, even if they are not planning to get pregnant. That way, if they do become pregnant, their babies will be less likely to have birth defects. Women who are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant need 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid in the very early stages of pregnancy often before they know that they are pregnant. A pregnant woman should keep taking folic acid throughout pregnancy.”

Bottom Line

Women should always discuss supplementation needs with their physician. In this way, other health issues and nutrient deficiencies can be treated. With a nutritious diet and appropriate supplementation, you are helping to ensure a healthy start to your baby’s growth and development.

Watch this video to find out more about why your prenatal vitamin must have Folate.

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