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Researchers analyzed data on almost 15,000 women enrolled in a long-term study looking at diet, lifestyle, and disease. During the study, the combined number of pregnancies for all the women surpassed 20,000. Women developed gestational diabetes in just more than 800 of the pregnancies.
The women regularly filled out questionnaires about their supplement and food intake. Based on this information, the researchers found that women who regularly took up to 400 mcg of folic acid a day before getting pregnant were 22 percent less likely to develop gestational diabetes than women who didn't take folic acid supplements before pregnancy.
Women who took a higher amount of folic acid – 600 mcg daily – before pregnancy reduced their risk of gestational diabetes even further. They were 30 percent less likely to develop the disease than women not taking folic acid pre-pregnancy.
Eating foods naturally high in folate (the nonsynthetic form of folic acid found in food), didn't affect gestational diabetes risk, the study found. That may be because the body absorbs folic acid in supplements better than folate from foods, previous research shows.
What is gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy when blood sugar levels become too high in the expectant mom. This happens when your body doesn't produce enough insulin, or if the cells have a problem responding to it. Too much glucose remains in your blood instead of moving into cells and getting converted to energy.
For most moms-to-be, gestational diabetes isn't a concern: When your body needs additional insulin to process excess glucose in blood, the pancreas secretes more. But if the pancreas can't keep up with the increased demand for insulin during pregnancy, blood sugar levels rise too high because the cells aren't using the glucose.
Gestational diabetes needs to be recognized and treated quickly because it can cause health problems for mother and baby.
How can folic acid help?
It's not clear why folic acid impacts gestational diabetes risk, but lack of folate in the diet has been associated with insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes in people who aren't pregnant, the researchers noted.
Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy is also known to reduce your baby's risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women of childbearing age take 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid a day. Other expert organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the CDC, recommend a 400 mcg daily dosage.
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