Folic acid is a naturally occurring B vitamin used by our bodies to generate healthy new cells. All women who could possibly become pregnant require sufficient levels of folic acid (before conceiving and in early pregnancy) to help prevent major birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, called neural tube defects (NTDs).
In the earliest stages of pregnancy, folic acid helps a baby's neural tube - the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord - develop properly. It must be taken before and during early pregnancy when the neural tube is developing.
If all women took adequate folic acid before conception and during pregnancy, the number of babies born with a neural tube defect could drop by as much as 70 percent.
According to the March of Dimes - an organization whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality - about 2,500 children are born each year in the United States with a neural tube defect. They estimate that if all women took adequate folic acid before conception and during pregnancy, the number of babies born with a neural tube defect could drop by as much as 70 percent.
In addition to playing a crucial role in the healthy development of your baby, it has long been known that folic acid plays an important role in the production of normal red blood cells. Also, studies have suggested that folic acid may also protect women and men from heart disease, cervical, colon, and breast cancer, and possibly Alzheimer's disease.
Folic acid is available in most multivitamins, as a folic acid-only supplement, and in many fortified foods - although it is difficult to get enough folic acid through diet alone.
The best way to get enough folic acid is to take a daily multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid and eating a healthy diet before pregnancy and during early pregnancy. Even in very high amounts, folic acid is non-toxic. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women consume no more than 1,000 micrograms of synthetic folic acid a day.
Folic Acid Naturally
It is important to eat a healthy diet that includes food containing folate - the natural form of the B vitamin. Folic acid is found in the following foods:
Fortified breakfast cereals
Peanuts (only if you do not have a peanut allergy)
Orange juice (from concentrate is best)
Enriched breads and pasta