PhotoWomen who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant while taking a folic acid supplement should take note of a new Australian study. It found that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun may reduce their folate levels.

The study of 45 young healthy women in Brisbane aged 18 to 47, showed high rates of sun exposure accounted up to a 20 per cent reduction in folate levels.

"This is concerning as the benefits of folic acid are well-known, with health professionals urging young women to take a folic acid supplement prior to and during pregnancy," Prof. Michael Kimlin of Queensland University said.

Folate has been found to reduce miscarriage and neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies. Health agencies recommend pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy take 500 micrograms a day, he noted.

High levels of exposure

Kimlin said the study, which was the first to investigate the effects of sun exposure on folate levels in women of childbearing age, found women who had high levels of sun exposure had folate levels below those recommended for women considering pregnancy.

"The women at risk were those who were outside during the most UV intense time of the day, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., with little sun protection," Kimlin said.

Dr. David Borradale, co-author of the study, said further research including a controlled clinical trial is needed.

"We are not telling women to stop taking folate supplements, but rather urging women to talk to their doctor about their folate levels and the importance of folate in their diet, especially those who are planning a pregnancy," Borradale said. "The results of this study reinforce the need for adequate folate levels prior to and during pregnancy."

What to do

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is very important for pregnant women and those planning a baby. Folate is found in foods such as green leafy vegetables like spinach, citrus fruits, legumes, whole grains and vegemite.

Folic acid is also added to many foods such as breads, flours and pastas. Folic acid can also be taken as a pill.

Women planning a pregnancy or those who are already pregnant should seek prenatal care that includes nutrition counseling.

The research was published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology.

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