Folic acid, sometimes called folate, is a B vitamin (B9) found mostly in leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach, orange juice, and enriched grains. Many studies have shown that women who get 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) daily prior to conception and during early pregnancy reduce the risk that their baby will be born with a serious neural tube defect (a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord) by up to 70%.
Amounts of Folic Acid
It’s recommended that you take a prenatal vitamin or supplement that contains 400 mcg of folic acid. That’s the recommended dosage for pre-pregnancy and through the first trimester. During the second and third trimesters, the daily dose should be increased to 600 mcg. And, after the baby is born, you still might not be off the hook; if you’re breastfeeding, you should be taking 500 mcg of folic acid per day.
Most prenatal or pregnancy vitamins that you find on the shelf will have enough folic acid in them, but read the labels carefully. If you use a multivitamin instead of a prenatal, you’ll definitely want to check the amounts (many of them fall short of the daily recommended dose).
Prevention of Birth Defects
There are two main birth defects that folic acid helps to prevent: Spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spinal cord doesn’t fully develop; it results in permanent disability. Anencephaly is a condition in which the brain doesn’t fully develop, and it is usually fatal for the baby. Taking a sufficient amount of folic acid can reduce the risk of these birth defects by up to 50 percent.
Additional Benefits for Baby
Getting your daily dose of folic acid might also help to prevent the following problems:
- Premature birth or miscarriage
- Low birth weight
- Pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia
- Cleft lip and cleft palate
Additional Benefits for Mom
Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in women. Doctors believe that it can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, and it may even help to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Foods with Folic Acid
This is one of those rare instances where doctors say a pill is better for you than real food. For some reason, the body absorbs the synthetic pill form of folic acid better than the folic acid you receive in foods. That’s why it is so important to take prenatal vitamins. For more information “How to Deal Swelling During Pregnancy.”
If you want to supplement the folic acid you’re receiving from the vitamins, that’s perfectly fine (you can’t overdose on it). Here are some healthy foods you can eat to supplement your folic acid intake:
- Breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid
- Beef liver
- Spinach, broccoli, collard greens
- Egg noodles
- Citrus fruit and juice
Tip for Swallowing Those Gigantic Pills
Let’s face it; many over-the-counter prenatal vitamins with folic acid are huge. A lot of doctors jokingly call them “horse pills,” because they look almost as large as the pills that veterinarians prescribe for horses. If you’re having trouble swallowing them, try chopping one in half with a kitchen knife. This will help you swallow it more easily. Just be sure to take both halves of the pill if you do this, so you can get the full daily dose!