Folic acid is a naturally occurring B vitamin. It helps a fetus's neural tube develop properly. The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. When the neural tube does not close properly, a baby is born with a very serious birth defect called a neural tube defect (NTD).
The good news is that folic acid can help prevent neural tube defects. However, folic acid only works if taken before getting pregnant and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman may even know she is pregnant. Since nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, it's important that all women of childbearing age (even if they're not trying to get pregnant) get the recommended daily amount of folic acid.
The best way to get enough folic acid is to take a multivitamin
with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid in it and eat healthy foods
. Most multivitamins have this amount, but check the label to be sure. You also can get folate (the natural form of folic acid) in some foods you eat, but most women don't get the recommended amount of folate or folic acid from foods alone.
About 3,000 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects each year in the United States. If all women took adequate folic acid before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, up to 70 percent of neural tube defects could be prevented.
Once you're pregnant, you should increase your folic acid intake to at least 600 micrograms of folic acid. Your prenatal vitamin should have the right amount of folic acid you'll need during pregnancy.
Most women should limit the amount of folic acid they take to 1,000 micrograms a day unless otherwise directed by a health provider. For example, women who have had a previous pregnancy affected by birth defects of the brain and spine and women with sickle cell disease should be sure to talk with their health providers about the need for more folic acid.
Folic acid is found in the following foods:
- Fortified breakfast cereals (look on the label to see if the cereal has been fortified with folic acid)
- Black beans
- Peanuts (only if you do not have a peanut allergy)
- Orange juice (from concentrate is best)
- Enriched breads and pasta
- Romaine lettuce
Folic acid is important for everyone in maintaining health. It plays an important role in the production of red blood cells. Folic acid may also help prevent certain health problems; research is still being done.