Folic acid keeps you and your baby healthy
Folic acid is a B vitamin that can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord called neural tube defects (NTDs). Folic acid works to prevent these birth defects only if taken before conception and during early pregnancy. Folate is the natural form of folic acid that is found in certain foods.
Because NTDs originate in the first month of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant, it is important for a woman to have enough folic acid in her system before conception. Folic acid is recommended for all women of childbearing age because about half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned (1). However, too many women aren't getting the recommended daily amount of folic acid.
Why should women of childbearing age take folic acid?
Studies show that if all women consumed the recommended amount of folic acid before and during early pregnancy, up to 70 percent of all NTDs could be prevented (1, 2).
The neural tube is the embryonic structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord. This structure, which starts out as a tiny ribbon of tissue, normally folds inward to form a tube by the 28th day after conception.
When this process goes wrong and the neural tube does not close completely, defects in the brain and spinal cord can result. An estimated 3,000 pregnancies in the United States are affected by NTDs each year (1, 3).
The most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida, often called “open spine,” affects the spine and, sometimes, the spinal cord. Children with the severe form of spina bifida have some degree of leg paralysis and bladder- and bowel-control problems and, sometimes, neurologic and developmental problems. Anencephaly is a fatal condition in which a baby is born with a severely underdeveloped brain and skull.
Folic acid also may help prevent other birth defects, including cleft lip and palate and some heart defects (1, 4).
A recent study suggests that women who take folic acid for at least 1 year before they become pregnant can cut their risk for having a premature baby (born before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy) by half (5). The study also suggests that these women can reduce their risk of having a very premature baby (born before 32 completed weeks) by up to 70 percent. Premature babies are at increased risk of newborn complications and lasting disabilities, including mental retardation, cerebral palsy and vision loss, with very premature babies at highest risk.
How much folic acid does a woman need?
The March of Dimes recommends that all women who can become pregnant take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day starting before pregnancy, as part of a healthy diet. This advice, based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) (6), assures that a woman can get all the folic acid and other vitamins she needs daily. A 2007 March of Dimes Gallup survey showed that 40 percent of women of childbearing age in the United States take a vitamin with folic acid daily (7).
Healthy food choices include foods that are fortified with folic acid and foods that contain folate, the natural form of folic acid that is found in foods. Many grain products in the United States are fortified with folic acid. This means that a synthetic (manufactured) form of folic acid is added to them. Enriched flour, rice, pasta, bread and cereals are examples of fortified grain products. Women can check the label to see if a product is enriched. Good sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, dried beans, legumes, oranges and orange juice.
Folic acid from vitamin supplements and fortified foods is more readily absorbed and made available for use by the body than natural folate from food. According to the IOM, the body absorbs about 50 percent of food folate (6). By contrast, the body absorbs approximately 85 percent of the folic acid in fortified foods and 100 percent of the folic acid in a vitamin supplement (6). Cooking and storage can destroy some of the folate in foods.
Many studies have shown that the synthetic form of folic acid helps prevent NTDs. The IOM, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the March of Dimes recommend that women who could become pregnant consume at least 400 micrograms a day of the synthetic form of folic acid (1, 6).
Women can get this amount by taking a multivitamin or eating a serving of cereal that contains 100 percent of the daily value (DV) of folic acid (400 micrograms) (1). Most multivitamins and about 50 breakfast cereals contain this amount in one serving (8). Other cereals contain only 25 percent of the recommended amount. Women should check the label on the cereal box to see how much folic acid the cereal contains.
Do some women need more folic acid?
If a woman has already had a pregnancy affected by an NTD, she should ask her provider before her next pregnancy about the amount of folic acid she should take. Studies have shown that taking a larger dose of folic acid daily (4,000 micrograms, which equals 4 milligrams), beginning at least 1 month before pregnancy and in the first trimester of pregnancy, reduces by about 70 percent the risk of having another affected pregnancy (1). Women should take only one prenatal vitamin, plus three 1-milligram folic acid tablets to get the right amount (1). Taking more than one prenatal vitamin may cause women to get too much of certain other vitamins, such as vitamin A.
Women with diabetes, epilepsy and obesity are at increased risk of having a baby with an NTD (1). Women with these conditions should consult their provider before pregnancy to see if they should take a larger dose of folic acid.
Do women need folic acid throughout pregnancy?
Yes. A pregnant woman needs extra folic acid throughout pregnancy to help her produce the additional blood cells her body needs during pregnancy. Folic acid also supports the rapid growth of the placenta and fetus and is needed to produce new DNA (genetic material) as cells multiply. Without adequate amounts of folic acid, cell division could be impaired, possibly leading to poor growth in the fetus or placenta.
The IOM recommends that women increase their intake of folic acid to 600 micrograms a day (from supplements and food sources) once their pregnancy is confirmed (6). Most health care providers recommend a prenatal vitamin. Most prenatal vitamins contain 800 to 1,000 micrograms of folic acid. However, women should not take more than 1,000 micrograms (1 milligram) without their provider’s advice (1, 6).
How much folic acid is in fortified foods?
Since January 1, 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required the addition of 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain to cereals, breads, pastas and other foods labeled “enriched.” This fortification makes it easier for women to get folic acid from food they eat.
Studies show that fortification is associated with increased blood folate levels in women of childbearing age (9). Since fortification of grain products, the rate of NTDs has decreased by one-third, although other factors have contributed to this decline (10).
The amount of folic acid added to fortified foods (with the exception of some cereals) is small. Most women cannot get enough daily folic acid from food alone. In fact, a 2007 government study found that blood folate levels declined significantly in women of childbearing age from 1999-2000 to 2003-2004, for reasons that are not clear (9).
When the FDA determined that grains should be fortified with folic acid, it limited the fortification amount because of concerns that high levels of folic acid could mask a vitamin B-12 deficiency (11). This condition is called pernicious anemia and is seen mainly in elderly people. Very high doses of folic acid (more than 1,000 micrograms a day) may correct the anemia caused by the vitamin deficiency, but not the deficiency itself, possibly delaying diagnosis. Left untreated for an extended period of time, vitamin B-12 deficiency can cause irreversible nerve damage. To date, research has not demonstrated any risk of pernicious anemia or other adverse effects with current levels of folic acid fortification.
How does folic acid prevent birth defects?
How folic acid prevents NTDs is not well understood. Most studies suggest that it may correct a nutritional deficiency. However, others suggest that supplemental folic acid may help people compensate for common genetic traits that make them unable to use dietary folate. These traits could put women at extra risk for having children with NTDs (12).
Does folic acid have other health benefits?
Folic acid is important for everyone in maintaining health. Folic acid plays an important role in the production of red blood cells. Individuals who are deficient in folic acid sometimes develop a form of anemia called megaloblastic anemia (characterized by a reduced number of red blood cells). Folic acid also may play a role in preventing other health problems.