Folic Acid for a Healthy Baby
What is folic acid?
Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin. The word folate comes from folium the Latin word for leaf. Folate happens naturally in food, particularly in dark,
green leafy vegetables. Folic acid is the synthetic form supplied in multivitamins
and foods fortified with folic acid. Researchers discovered folate’s importance in
preventing anemia about 70 years ago. But only in recent years have they learned of
the link between folate deficiency and certain birth defects.
Why is folic acid important?
Most people have heard about the importance of folic acid for women during their childbearing
years. But what’s all the fuss about? Getting enough folic acid can reduce the risk
for neural tube defects (NTDs). Folic acid only helps, however, if it’s taken before
getting pregnant and during the first trimester of pregnancy.
What is the role of folic acid in preventing birth defects?
A critical period of fetal development happens during the early weeks of pregnancy,
often before a woman is aware she is even pregnant.
Illustration of a human embryo at 4 weeks. (Click to Enlarge)
One of the earliest structures to form is the neural tube. This structure is flat
at first, but rolls into a tube by only 1 month after conception to become the brain
and spinal cord.
Without enough folic acid, the cells in this structure can’t function or grow properly
and the tube doesn’t close. The spine, skull, and brain can be affected, with open
or closed abnormalities.
Two of the most common types of NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida
is a condition in which a portion of the spinal cord and the surrounding structures
develops outside, instead of inside the body. Anencephaly is a condition in which
the brain and skull bones do not form properly and results in parts of the brain being
Researchers have found that the risk for NTDs is significantly lowered when a woman
gets extra folic acid in addition to a healthy diet from 1 month before conception
through 2 to 3 months after becoming pregnant.
What are the sources for folic acid?
Folate happens naturally in many foods, like dark, leafy green vegetables, legumes
(dried beans and peas), and fruits (oranges, bananas, melons, and most berries. But
often it’s not enough. To help women get the amount they need, the FDA requires folic
acid to be added to enriched breads, breakfast cereals, pastas, rice, and other grains.
The developing baby needs folate to make healthy new cells, and to make DNA and RNA
(genetic material). These are cell-building blocks. Folate also is essential to form
normal red blood cells and certain amino acids. These are important functions during
pregnancy and infancy. This is a time when cells rapidly divide and grow.
How much folic acid is recommended for women of childbearing age?
Women who may become pregnant should take a supplement containing 400 mcg of folic
acid. To help reduce your risk, take the folic acid supplement in addition to eating
foods naturally rich in folate and those fortified with folic acid. Because some women
will need additional folic acid, it’s important to talk with your health care provider
about the amount that is right for you.