A lot of women think of folic acid as ‘that stuff that you should take when you’re thinking about getting pregnant or when you’re pregnant,’ but you may not know exactly why. It’s a vitamin that everyone needs, but is especially important for women before, during and after pregnancy. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPTF) all recommend that women who are of childbearing age take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid (a B vitamin) each day. This can come from dietary supplements and/or fortified foods. While pregnant, this amount jumps up to 600 micrograms (mcg) per day.
Folic acid helps a body make new cells, so it is helpful in lowering the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTD), defined by the CDC as a “major defect of a baby’s brain or spine.” Common types of NTDs include spina bifida and anencephaly. A baby’s brain or spine can be damaged when the neural tube does not form properly. The neural tube develops to form the brain, spinal cord and spine, and this forms within the few week weeks of pregnancy. A woman may or may not know she is pregnant at this time, which is why having enough folic acid in your body already is important.
According to the NIH, both women of childbearing age and pregnant women are at risk of not having enough (or barely enough) folate. Therefore, they recommend taking dietary supplements, eating fortified foods and foods that are naturally rich in folate. Most multivitamins that are sold in the United States contain the estimated average requirements (EARs) for folic acid. However, they may also contain Vitamin A, which is not recommended during pregnancy. Folic acid can also be purchased and taken separately as its own supplement. If you have any questions about purchasing vitamins or recommended dosages (whether are or aren’t pregnant), we recommend that you contact your healthcare provider.
The other recommendation is to eat foods that are enriched with folate. In the past, we’ve written about best practices for pregnancy diet and nutrition and provided a few pregnancy power foods to add to your diet. Fortified foods include bread, cereal and pasta. Check the nutrition labels on packages to see if folic acid has been added. Vegetables such as leafy greens, brussels sprouts and asparagus and fruits, particularly oranges, are rich in folate. Nuts, peas, beans and grains are also high in folate.
For more information about which nutritional options are recommended for you, please consult your provider.