Folic Acid Facts: What Every Woman Should Know


Many women know that taking folic acid can help prevent birth defects. But did you know that all women of childbearing age should be taking it, even if they’re not pregnant or trying to get pregnant?

Awareness of folic acid and its benefits is improving. But less than a third of American women aged 18 to 24 years old who aren’t pregnant take a daily multivitamin that contains this important B vitamin.

How does it help?
Folic acid can help prevent serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Each year, about 2,500 babies are born with these problems, called neural tube defects. Many more affected pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. The most common of these defects is spina bifida, a leading cause of childhood paralysis. Another is anencephaly, a fatal condition in which a baby is born with a severely underdeveloped brain and skull.

Why take folic acid if you’re not pregnant? If you become pregnant, your baby’s brain and spine will have started to form by the time you learn you’re expecting. Close to half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, so all women of childbearing age are advised to take folic acid.

Folic acid basics
To help prevent birth defects, women should take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 to 800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day. You will need a higher dose of this B vitamin if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, women should eat a healthy diet that is rich in folate. Folate is a natural form of folic acid found in foods such as orange juice, broccoli, and beans.

Have you already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect? If so, ask your doctor how much folic acid you should take if you are planning to conceive again. In most cases, you will be advised to take a larger amount, as much as 4,000 mcg. These higher doses can be obtained by prescription.

Making sure you get enough
The best way to get the required amount of folic acid daily is to take a multivitamin. Most over-the-counter prenatal vitamins will contain 400 mcg or more. The body more easily absorbs the folic acid in multivitamins and fortified breakfast cereals and grain products than the natural form of the vitamin.

Can you get enough folic acid through breakfast cereal? It depends which brand you buy. Not all cereals are 100 percent fortified with folic acid, so read the label. And some cereals are sprayed with folic acid, as opposed to having it mixed in during production. That means it can dissolve into the milk it’s served in. So you have to drink all the milk in the bowl to get the full benefit.

Many women find it easier to take a multivitamin so they know they are getting the right amount each day.

Beware of interactions
Some common prescription drugs can hold back the absorption of folic acid. These include some seizure medications, the antibiotic tetracycline, and some drugs used to treat urinary tract infections, gastric reflux, and high blood pressure. Do not stop any medicine on your own, though. Ask your doctor if you need to take a higher dose of folic acid.

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