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Why Women Should Take Folic Acid Before (And During) Pregnancy

The Importance of Folic Acid for Women of Childbearing Age, Even When They Are Not Planning on Becoming Pregnant

November 20, 2019

If you are pregnant, or hoping to become pregnant, taking vitamins and eating nutritiously most likely ranks high on your list of priorities. But whether you are planning for the patter of tiny feet — or not — you may find it surprising to learn that there is one thing every woman of childbearing age should do: take folic acid.

What Are the Benefits of Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a man-made form of folate (a B-vitamin) that if taken before and during early pregnancy can protect an unborn baby from serious brain and spinal cord defects, called neural tube defects. In short, during the first few weeks of pregnancy, the baby grows a structure (a neural tube) that will eventually form its spinal cord and nervous system. When the neural tube does not fully close, this is called a neural tube defect. The two most common types of neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly.

Spina bifida is a condition where the backbone that protects the spinal cord doesn’t form and close as it should. Frequently, this results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. Spina bifida can cause physical and intellectual disabilities, which range from mild to severe.

Anencephaly is a condition where the upper part of the neural tube that forms the brain doesn’t completely close. Babies with anencephaly are often born without the front part of the brain (forebrain) and the thinking and coordinating part of the brain (cerebrum). The remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin. Babies with anencephaly usually die shortly after birth.

How Much Folic Acid Does a Woman Need?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that women who plan to or could become pregnant get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily.

Why Should Women of Childbearing Age Take Folic Acid?

A baby’s neural tube closes during the early weeks of pregnancy, typically before the mom-to-be knows that she is pregnant. Also, about half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, according to the CDC.

Consequently, taking folic acid every day can prevent serious health issues for your baby if your positive pregnancy test comes as a surprise.

How Can Women Get Folic Acid?

Most multivitamins in the U.S. have the recommended 400 mcg of folic acid. Also, some foods in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid. Other foods contain folate naturally.

What Foods Contain Folate Naturally?

Foods that are naturally high in folate include:

  • Spinach and other dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.) and meat
  • Whole grains

What Foods Are Fortified with Folic Acid?

The Food and Drug Administration requires that certain foods be fortified with folic acid, while other foods may be voluntarily fortified. Folic acid can be found in the following foods:

  • Bread
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Cornmeal
  • Flour
  • Pasta
  • Products made from a corn masa flour, including tortillas, tortilla chips, taco shells, tamales and pupusas
  • White rice

Do Women Need to Take a Vitamin with Folic Acid If They Are Eating Fortified Foods?

Yes, women should take a vitamin with folic acid every day. According to the CDC, researchers estimate that in the U.S. people consume about 140 mcg of folic acid daily from mandatorily fortified foods. That falls way below the 400 mcg recommended to protect against neural tube defects.

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