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Folic Acid Prevents Birth Defects

Folic acid is a type of B vitamin required for the development of a healthy fetus.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a B vitamin found naturally in dark-green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains. It plays an important part in the development of the fetus' spinal cord and brain. Ideally, you should begin eating foods and supplements containing folic acid two to three months prior to conception and during your first trimester of pregnancy.

Folic acid deficiency can cause severe birth defects of the brain and spinal cord known as neural tube defects. In some cases, there may be no noticeable signs of folic acid deficiency, and it is diagnosed in pregnant women only after a child is born with a neural tube defect. Usually, though, your health care provider can detect the defect with blood work and ultrasound during your prenatal checkups. When women take the recommended amount of folic acid before they conceive and through the first trimester of pregnancy, 50% to 70% of neural tube defects are prevented. Yet recent research by March of Dimes shows that many women are unaware of the importance of folic acid.

Where Can I Find Folic Acid?

There are many ways to get the folic acid your body needs. It is available in folic acid tablets, multivitamins, fortified breads, rice, pastas, and cereals. While many of these fortified foods contain about 10% of the daily RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance), a few cereals contain a full day's supply of folic acid. It is also possible to get enough folic acid by eating large amounts of liver, dark-green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, whole grains, and dried beans and peas.

How Much Do I Need?

The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board recommends the following:

  • Adults should have 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate daily. Women capable of becoming pregnant should receive this amount with folic acid supplements, not just fortified foods, to ensure the proper daily intake.
  • Women who have had a previous pregnancy with a neural tube defect should take a higher dosage of folic acid for their next pregnancy of at least 4 milligrams (mg) a day.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: If I take enough folic acid will my baby be safe from neural tube defects?

A: It will certainly help, but taking folic acid supplements does not always guarantee that your baby won't be born with a defect. While nearly half of the 2,500 annual cases of neural tube defects are caused by folic acid deficiency, other risk factors for these defects include:

  • Family history of neural tube defects.
  • Prior pregnancy with neural tube defects.
  • Having a seizure disorder.
  • Having diabetes.
  • Certain antiseizure medications.
  • Being extremely overweight.
  • Sitting in a hot tub or jacuzzi during early pregnancy.
  • Elevated body temperature early in pregnancy (such as from a fever or a hot tub).
  • Being of Hispanic ethnicity.

Q: What should I look for in a supplement containing folic acid?

A: Supplements should contain at least 400 mcg of folic acid and no more than 100% of the RDA for vitamins A and D. You should start taking multivitamins or folic acid supplements two to three months before you plan to conceive, to maximize the benefit to your baby.

Q: If folic acid is so important, why is it so hard to get women to take it?

A: Some women do not like to take vitamins, while others have stomach trouble when they take prenatal vitamins. Also, it is often difficult for most people to change their dietary habits. The research establishing the importance of folic acid is relatively new. Until recently, few health care providers informed their patients about the need of taking it prior to conception.

Review Date: 12/9/2012
Reviewed By: Irina Burd, MD, PhD, Maternal Fetal Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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