Folic acid is a B vitamin. Our bodies use it to make new cells. Think about the skin, hair, and nails. These–and other parts of the body – make new cells each day. Folic acid is the synthetic (that is, not generally occurring naturally) form of folate used in supplements and in fortified foods such as rice, pasta, bread, and some breakfast cereals.
Why folic acid is important before and during pregnancy
When the baby is developing early during pregnancy, folic acid helps form the neural tube. Folic acid is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).
Women of reproductive age need 400 mcg of folic acid every day
- All women of reproductive age should get 400 mcg of folic acid every day to get enough folic acid to help prevent some birth defects because
- About half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, and
- Major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy (3-4 weeks after conception), before most women know they are pregnant.
- When taking folic acid, a higher dose than 400 mcg of folic acid each day is not necessarily better to prevent neural tube defects, unless a doctor recommends taking more due to other health conditions.
- When planning to become pregnant, women who have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect should consult with their healthcare provider. CDC recommends that these women consume 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day one month before becoming pregnant and through the first 3 months of pregnancy.
When to start taking folic acid
Every woman of reproductive age needs to get folic acid every day, whether she is planning to get pregnant or not, to help make new cells.
The terms “folate” and “folic acid” are often used interchangeably, even though they are different. Folate is a general term to describe many different types of vitamin B9.
Types of folate can include
- Dihydrofolate (DHF)
- Tetrahydrofolate (THF)
- 5, 10-methylenetetrahydrofolate (5, 10-Methylene-THF)
- 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-Methyl-THF or 5-MTHF)
Food fortification is a way to add vitamins or minerals, or both, to foods. Some rice, pasta, bread, and breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid. These foods are labeled “enriched.” Folic acid is a specific type of folate that does not generally occur naturally.
Folic acid is ideal to use for food fortification. It is more stable than types of natural food folate. Heat and light can easily break down types of natural food folate. Folic acid is better suited for food fortification because many fortified products, such as bread and pasta, are cooked.
CDC recommends that women of reproductive age who could become pregnant consume at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate every day. However, it’s difficult to get 400 mcg of folate through diet alone. You can get 400 mcg of folic acid each day by taking a vitamin with folic acid in it, eating fortified foods, or a combination of the two, in addition to consuming a balanced diet rich in natural food folate.
How to get enough folic acid to prevent neural tube defects
In addition to eating foods with folate from a varied diet, women can get folic acid from
- Taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it:
- Many vitamins have the recommended daily amount of folic acid (400 mcg) that women need for the prevention of neural tube defects. Check out these Vitamins recommended by Phillips Pharmacy.
- Eating fortified foods:
- You can find folic acid in some breads, breakfast cereals, and corn masa flour.
- Getting a combination of the two: taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it and eating fortified foods.
BETTER HEALTH & BEYOND Editorial Team
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