Good for you and your baby, folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. Women of childbearing age taking 400 micrograms of folic acid daily before and during early pregnancy may help reduce their baby’s risk for birth defects of the brain and spine, known as neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. An NTD can happen when the neural tube doesn’t close completely. Some studies show that folic acid also may help prevent heart defects in a baby, and may help prevent cleft lip and cleft palate, which are birth defects in a baby’s mouth.
Who Should Take Folic Acid
All women, even if they are not trying to get pregnant, should take folic acid.
Folic acid helps prevent NTDs only if taken before pregnancy and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before you may even know that you’re pregnant. Because nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, it’s important that all women take folic acid daily.
How You Can Get Folic Acid
Take a multivitamin daily that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid. Most multivitamins have this amount, but check the label to be sure.
During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that contains 600 micrograms of folic acid. Your healthcare provider can prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you. You can also get prenatal vitamins over the counter at a grocery store or drugstore.
Most women don’t need more than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid each day. But some women — such as those who have had a pregnancy affected by NTDs or women with sickle cell disease — may need more. Talk to your provider to make sure you get the right amount of folic acid.
Foods With Folic Acid
Some flour, breads, cereals and pasta have folic acid added to them. Check the package for the words fortified or enriched to find out if a product contains folic acid. Even if you eat fortified or enriched foods, you should continue to take a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid.
You also can get folic acid from some fruits and vegetables. When folic acid is naturally in a food, it’s called folate. Foods that are good sources of folate are:
• Beans, such as lentils, pinto and black beans.
• Leafy greens, such as spinach and Romaine.
• Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit.
• Orange juice.
Folic acid plays an important role in helping your body to make red blood cells. Red blood cells are important because they carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Some studies show that folic acid may help protect you from heart disease. Scientists are still learning about all the benefits of folic acid.
© 2013 March of Dimes Foundation.