What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a B vitamin that plays a key part in DNA synthesis and is essential for rapid cell growth during pregnancy.
Why Do I Need Folic Acid?
Folic acid can help prevent certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord called neural tube defects (NTDs). Approximately 2,500 babies are born with NTDs each year in the U.S. and many additional affected pregnancies result in miscarriage or stillbirth. The two most common types of NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is when the spine does not completely form. Children with spina bifida may have paralysis of the lower body, bladder and bowel control problems and learning disabilities. Approximately one in every 1,000 newborns is born with this birth defect. Anencephaly is a fatal condition where the baby is born without a completely developed brain and skull.
NTDs occur in the first month of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant. Studies show that if all women consumed the recommended amount of folic acid before conception and through the first month of pregnancy, 50 to 70 percent of all NTDs could be prevented. But to do this, a woman needs folic acid in her body before she gets pregnant. That's why you should make sure you get enough folic acid every day, even if you're not planning to have a baby anytime soon.
Besides helping to prevent NTDs, folic acid is important throughout pregnancy because it helps pregnant women produce the additional blood cells she needs and supports the growth of the placenta and fetus. In addition, studies suggest that folic acid may prevent some other birth defects such as cleft lip and palate.
Are There Other Benefits to Folic Acid Besides During Pregnancy?
Folic acid has many other benefits beyond preventing birth defects. Women and men of all ages need folic acid every day to maintain good health. Recent studies suggest that folic acid may help prevent heart disease, cervical cancer and colon cancer in women and heart disease and colon cancer in men.
How Much Folic Acid Do I Need?
Women and men 14 years or older should get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Pregnant women need 600 mcg per day. If a woman has already had a baby with an NTD, she should consult her doctor before her next pregnancy about the amount of folic acid she should take. Women and men should not take a multivitamin that has 1,000 mcg (or 1 milligram) or more without consulting a doctor.
Where Can I Get Folic Acid?
Folic acid must be consumed daily. Most of us get some folic acid in our diet every day, but not everyone gets enough. It is recommended that women take a multivitamin pill with 400 mcg of folic acid daily in addition to eating a healthy diet.
Synthetic or manufactured folic acid is added to some grain products such as flour, rice, pasta, cornmeal, bread and cereals. These foods are considered "fortified" with folic acid. The natural form of folic acid is folate, which is found in foods. The body more readily absorbs folic acid from multivitamins and fortified foods than folate from food. Once in your bloodstream, however, your body can't tell the difference and uses the vitamin for the same purpose.
Sources of Folic Acid
- Multivitamin with folic acid
- Breakfast cereals that say "fortified" on the box
- Orange juice
- Beans, lentils and blackeye peas
- Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach
- Broccoli, asparagus green peas and okra
- Pasta, tortillas and bread products that say "enriched" or "fortified" on the label
- Rice and grits
- Soybeans and tofu
- Peanut butter
Barriers to Folic Acid Absorption
Some substances can inhibit folic acid from being absorbed or used by the body. These include:
- Cigarettes and smoking
- Antacids and anti-ulcer medications
- Some antiseizure medications
- Some anticancer drugs
- Some antibiotics/antibacterials
- Nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen
- Oral hypoglycemic agents
If you use any of these substances, talk to your doctor about your folic acid requirements.
You may not be planning a pregnancy soon, but unexepected pregnancies happen to women every day. In fact, about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are not planned. That's why you should get enough folic acid every day if there's any chance you could get pregnant. Because by the time you know you're pregnant, your baby's brain and spine are already formed.
For additional information about folic acid, visit the March of Dimes at www.marchofdimes.com or consult your doctor.