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.
One of the earliest structures to form is the neural tube. This structure is flat
at first. But it 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 correctly
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 part of the spinal cord and the surrounding structures develops
outside the body, instead of inside it. Anencephaly is a condition in which the brain
and skull bones don't form correctly. This results in most of the brain being absent.
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. These include 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
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 vital 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 advised for women of childbearing age?
Women who may become pregnant should take a supplement with 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. Some women will need
additional folic acid. So it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider about
the amount that is right for you.