Folic acid, or folate, may be one of the most important vitamins that you can take before and during pregnancy. One of the B vitamins, folic acid is found in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and turnip greens, peas and dried beans. Some fruits such as oranges and strawberries contain folic acid as well. Sources of folic acid also include fortified grain products such as bread, cereals and flour. During pregnancy, folic acid is imperative for the healthy development of your baby and preventing anemia.
Folic acid helps produce and maintain new cells and is especially instrumental in the stage of rapid cell division. It helps to replicate DNA, making it especially important during the early phases of fetal development. Folic acid has been shown to help prevent neural tube defects that affect the brain (anencephaly) and the spine (spina bifida). Since certain foods were first fortified with folic acid in 1996, the incidence of neural tube defects in the United States has decreased by 25%.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a recommendation that women aged 18 to 24 get at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day either through vitamins with folic acid, foods that are naturally folate-rich or are fortified, or a combination of each. Pregnant women should be getting approximately 600 to 800 micrograms of folic acid every day through supplements and diet. Because this age group has 1/3 of the pregnancies in the U.S., the CDC is focusing on improving education to prevent neural tube defects among this particular group.
A study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that only 40% of women of childbearing age (18-45) actually take a vitamin supplement with folic acid, and only 30% of the targeted age group (18-24) take a folic acid supplement. This is of particular concern because this group has such a large portion of the pregnancies, thus putting a larger number of babies at risk of developing neural tube defects because they are not getting the recommended daily amount.
If you are planning to get pregnant, or are already pregnant, be sure to take a prenatal vitamin, which will have more folic acid than a regular daily vitamin. You may also be able to augment your daily vitamin with a folic acid supplement. If you can’t find a prenatal vitamin you like, your doctor has a variety to choose from and can prescribe one that works for you. Getting extra folic acid through a healthy, balanced diet is always the best way to get the vitamin, as well as many other nutrients that will nourish you and your child.