Folic acid is a B vitamin. Our bodies use it to make new cells. Think about the skin, hair, and nails. These and other parts of the body make new cells each day. Folic acid is the synthetic (that is, not generally occurring naturally) form of folate that is used in supplements and in fortified foods such as rice, pasta, bread, and some breakfast cereals.
Women of reproductive age need 400 mcg of folic acid every day
All women of reproductive age should get 400 mcg of folic acid each day to get enough folic acid to help prevent some birth defects because
- About half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, and
- Major birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy (3-4 weeks after conception), before most women know they are pregnant.
When taking folic acid, a higher dose than 400 mcg of folic acid each day is not necessarily better to prevent neural tube defects, unless a doctor recommends taking more due to other health conditions.
When planning to become pregnant, women who have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect should consult with their healthcare provider. CDC recommends that these women consume 4,000 mcg of folic acid each day one month before becoming pregnant and through the first three months of pregnancy.
Vitamin B-9 includes both folate and folic acid and is important for several functions in the body.
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), folic acid is vital for making red blood cells, as well as:
- the synthesis and repair of DNA and RNA
- aiding rapid cell division and growth
- enhancing brain health, although the evidence is mixed and more research is needed
- age-related hearing loss
It is particularly important for women who are pregnant to consume enough folic acid. This helps prevent the fetus from developing major congenital deformities of the brain or spine, including neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
Women planning to get pregnant should take folic acid supplements for a full year before conception to reduce the risk of these developments.
Folic acid is thought to play a preventive role in a range of conditions.
How to get enough folic acid
In addition to eating foods with folate from a varied diet, women can get folic acid from
- Taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it;
- Most vitamins sold in the United States have the recommended daily amount of folic acid (400 mcg) that women need.
- Vitamins can be found at most local pharmacy, grocery, or discount stores. Check the label on the bottle to be sure it contains 100% of the daily value of folic acid, which is 400 mcg.
- Eating fortified foods;
- You can find folic acid in some breads, breakfast cereals, and corn masa flour.
- Be sure to check the nutrient facts label, and look for a product that has “100%” next to folate.
- Getting a combination of the two: taking a vitamin that has folic acid in it and eating fortified foods.
Folic acid deficiency occurs when not enough folate or folic acid is present in the body.
Aside from anemia and congenital deformities, folic acid deficiency can result in other health problems, including:
- a higher risk of developing clinical depression
- possible problems with memory and brain function
- a higher risk of potentially developing allergic diseases
- a higher potential long-term risk of lower bone density
The Medical Journal of Australia advised in January 2011 that the prevalence of folate deficiency in the country had dropped considerably since introducing the compulsory fortification of wheat flour in bread making.
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