What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body make new cells. While most adults are able to get the minimum recommended amount of folic acid from their regular diet, women of reproductive age are encouraged to take supplements. When taken before and during pregnancy, folic acid supplements can help prevent serious birth defects of your baby's brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Nearly half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. Because neural tube defects happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before many women realize they are pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Public Health Service urge every woman who may become pregnant (i.e., those who are of reproductive age and sexually active, not just those who are planning a pregnancy) to take folic acid every day. 

According to the CDC, every woman who may become pregnant should take 400 micrograms (400 mcg) of folic acid each day. Women with a "very high" risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect, such as women who take certain anti-seizure medications or women with a personal or family history of neural tube defects, may require higher doses. Women should start taking the vitamin before they become pregnant in order to provide the best protection for their baby’s health. The critical period of supplementation is from 1 month before conception through the first 3 months of pregnancy.

How to ensure that folic acid intake is adequate

Most women do not consume enough of this nutrient in their everyday diet. Plus, the synthetic form of folic acid is better absorbed than folate, the naturally occurring form. There are also many items (commonly used) that block the absorption of folic acid such as antacids, aspirin, and alcohol. Tips for women to ensure that folic acid intake is adequate:

  • Take a folic acid supplement or a vitamin containing folic acid every day. Check the label to be sure that it has 100 percent of the recommended daily amount.
  • Make taking folic acid part of your daily routine. Take your vitamin at the same time each day, so you won’t forget. If you take an oral birth control hormone, talk with your physician about options that might contain folic acid.
  • Eat breakfast cereal. Check the label to be sure that it has 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of folic acid (400 mcg). Also, check the serving size to be sure you’re eating a full serving of cereal and, thus, folic acid. Other sources of folic acid are lentils, asparagus, spinach, black beans, peanuts, orange juice, enriched breads and pasta, romaine lettuce, and broccoli. 
  • Don’t worry about taking “too much.” There is no known toxic level for folic acid. The CDC recommends consuming no more than 1,000 mcg of synthetic folic acid a day. Taking a supplement, eating a bowl of fortified cereal, and consuming a diet rich in folate will ensure that all women get the folic acid they need.

Last updated June 20, 2021

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