Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for normal growth and development. It helps your body make red blood cells that carry oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body.
Taking folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (also called NTDs). The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. NTDs happen in the first month of pregnancy, before you may know that you’re pregnant. This is why it’s important to have enough folic acid in your body before you get pregnant.
Why do I need folic acid before and during pregnancy?
If you’re pregnant or might become pregnant, it’s critically important to get enough folic acid because it helps prevent neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida (which affects the spinal cord) and anencephaly (which affects the brain). The neural tube is the part of the embryo from which your baby’s spine and brain develop.
Neural tube defects occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy – before many women even know they’re pregnant. That’s why it’s important to begin taking folic acid before you start trying to conceive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), NTDs affect about 3,000 pregnancies a year in the United States. But women who take the recommended daily dose of folic acid starting at least one month before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy can reduce their baby’s risk of neural tube defects by up to 70 percent.
Getting enough folic acid is also essential to the rapid cell growth of the placenta and your developing baby. Some research suggests that folic acid also may help lower your baby’s risk of other defects, such as cleft lip, cleft palate, and certain types of heart defects.
How much folic acid do you need?
Here’s what you need to know about taking folic acid to prevent NTDs:
To help prevent NTDs in your baby, before pregnancy take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid every day. A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in the foods you eat. Start taking 400 mcg of folic acid each day at least 1 month before pregnancy through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Your folic acid supplement can be:
- A multivitamin. This is a pill that contains many vitamins and other nutrients that help your body stay healthy.
- A prenatal vitamin. This is a multivitamin that has the nutrients you need during pregnancy. Your health care provider may give you a prescription for prenatal vitamins, or you can get them over the counter without a prescription
- Take a vitamin supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid each day, even if you’re not trying to get pregnant.
- During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 mcg of folic acid in it. Folic acid only works to prevent NTDs before and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Later in pregnancy, you need 600 mcg of folic acid each day to help your baby grow and develop.
Folate in your Diet
Many foods are naturally rich in folate. But note that folate is water-soluble and is easily destroyed by cooking. Vegetables are best lightly cooked or even eaten raw. Cooking by microwave or steaming is best.
The following are good sources of natural folate:
- Vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, English spinach, green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, parsnip, sweet corn, and zucchini.
- Fruit like avocado, grapefruit, and orange
- Legumes like chickpeas, soya beans, lima beans, red kidney beans, lentils, and haricot beans
- Juices like many apple and orange juices