If you’re planning to have a baby, you may have heard about the importance of taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid. This type of B vitamin is one of many nutrients that helps with development during the early stages of pregnancy.
However, even if you aren’t planning a pregnancy, folic acid is still essential too. Get to know more about this vitamin and the folic acid recommendations for all women of childbearing age.
Folic acid and folate basics
In addition to its role in the early weeks of pregnancy, folic acid is a vitamin that everyone needs for a healthy body. According to the Office on Women’s Health, your body uses folic acid to help make new red blood cells. Without it, there’s the possibility of anemia—which means you don’t have a normal level of these cells.
The name folic acid is used to refer to the synthetic version of this nutrient. When it is found naturally in food, it’s called folate. But both play the same role in your health.
Folic acid and neural tube defects
During the first few weeks of pregnancy, getting enough folic acid can help reduce the risk of neural tube defects. These defects affect the development of a baby’s spine, brain, or spinal cord. Two common neural defects are anencephaly, where the skull and brain don’t completely form, and spina bifida, where the spinal cord doesn’t close correctly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 50 to 70% of neural tube defects can be prevented when a woman takes folic acid before and during the first few months of pregnancy.
Eating foods with folic acid and folate
Some fruits and vegetables have natural amounts of folate in them. You may get folate from foods like broccoli, asparagus, some types of beans, spinach, walnuts, oranges, or grapefruit.
Many kinds of cereal and grains also have folic acid added to them. In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring the addition of folic acid to some grain products because of its importance to prenatal health. That’s why you’ll find higher levels of folic acid in fortified breakfast cereals, flour, rice, and pasta.
Why supplements are important
While it’s likely that you’re getting some folic acid from the foods you eat, you still may not get the suggested levels. As a result, the National Institute of Health recommends that every woman who is of childbearing age take a supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid a day.
Because the cells that make up the neural tube begin to form very early in pregnancy, you may not know you are pregnant yet. And many pregnancies are not planned. By recommending folic acid supplements for all women of childbearing age, it helps protect against neural tube defects in these common situations.
Additional folic acid needs
If you’re pregnant, your OB GYN may recommend you take a higher level of folic acid throughout your pregnancy. If you have other risk factors for neural tube defects, this amount may increase even more. The March of Dimes says a woman who is at high risk for having a baby with a neural tube defect may take up to 4,000 mcg of folic acid a day, starting a few months before trying to conceive.
Most women’s vitamins and prenatal vitamins contain some level of folic acid. But your OB GYN can guide you on the right amount of supplemental folic acid for you. With those recommendations, you can help reduce the risk of neural tube defects and give your body the nutrients it needs.