Getting the right amount of certain nutrients can be difficult, even if you eat a healthy diet. One nutrient you surely don’t want in short supply is folic acid.
Folic acid or folate (the form found naturally in food) is a B vitamin that’s crucial to DNA development, cell growth and tissue formation. Some studies suggest that folic acid helps protect against heart disease, stroke, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, too. But folic acid’s best-known benefit is the important role it plays in preventing neural tube birth defects like spina bifida and anencephaly. Women who get enough folic acid before and during early pregnancy may reduce their risk for having a baby with these birth defects by up to 70 percent.
Experts urge all adolescents and women of childbearing age to consume at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day, preferably by taking a multivitamin and eating a healthy diet. Supplementing with folic acid after you conceive may be too late: Neural tube defects occur within 28 days of conception, before you may realize you’re pregnant. Your doctor may recommend a prenatal vitamin or supplement that contains 600 mcg of folic acid once you become pregnant.
Although folate is found in citrus fruits and juices, bananas, melons, dried beans and peas, and leafy green vegetables like spinach, it can be difficult to consume enough every day. What’s more, cooking and storage can destroy folate. The body more readily absorbs folic acid, the man-made version, and many breakfast cereals, breads, flour, pasta and rice are now fortified with it. Since 1998, when fortifying enriched grain products with folic acid became mandatory, the average blood level of folic acid in the general population has doubled and neural tube birth defects decreased about 20 percent.
Some women may have greater folic acid needs, such as those who are obese, have diabetes or epilepsy or have had a baby with a neural tube defect. Don’t take more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid daily unless prescribed by your doctor.