Iron and folic acid play a crucial role in maintaining healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. A deficiency of either iron or folic acid can cause anemia, which happens when too few red blood cells are produced or there is not enough hemoglobin in each cell to transport oxygen. Folic acid helps produce new cells and is not stored in the body.
During pregnancy, sources of iron and folic acid are vital to prevent anemia in the mother and ensure a healthy child. The body's need for iron is greater during pregnancy, and it is important that the developing fetus receives sufficient oxygen. A deficiency of folic acid while a woman is pregnant can also cause birth defects in the offspring. These supplements are routinely prescribed as part of prenatal care to ensure a healthy baby.
Folic acid, one of the B vitamins, is especially important before conception and during the first 12 weeks of gestation. A deficiency of folic acid is linked to spina bifida in infants, a condition where neural tubes in the spinal cord fail to fuse properly. Deficiencies can also lead to increased risk of heart disease in an adult.
Foods rich in folic acid include dark green vegetables, peas, beans, and peanuts. Nutritionists suggest steaming or using very little water when cooking raw vegetables because cooking depletes much of the folic acid. Citrus fruits and juices provide other sources of folic acid, along with oral supplements.
Iron intake can also be increased through diet. A good source of iron easily absorbed by the body comes from lean, red meat. Some foods are rich in folic acid and iron and are recommended during pregnancy, such as peas, beans, and dried fruit. A diet rich in iron and folic acid, along with supplements, can prevent anemia in childbearing years and beyond.
One study reported by the World Health Organization found that almost half of women worldwide suffer from anemia. The research discovered that supplements containing iron and folic acid reduced infant mortality rates and the number of babies born underweight. Long-term benefits were also measured, following the children until they reached the age of seven. Children of women who used iron and folic acid during pregnancy showed better growth rates than offspring of mothers who were given a placebo vitamin.
Anemia commonly develops from lack of foods containing iron and folic acid in the diet. Some blood disorders, and medications that prevent the absorption of these nutrients, are other culprits. Symptoms of anemia include paleness, becoming faint, and feeling tired. A simple blood test can reveal if someone is anemic, and supplements can correct the disorder.