Women of childbearing age (typically ages 11 to 49) need an extra 400 to 800 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. Folic acid is found in vitamins and foods like breakfast cereal or bread that have folic acid added.
Everyone needs folic acid, but it’s especially important for women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant. Folic acid is a vitamin that can prevent birth defects.
Getting enough folic acid is important even when you aren’t planning to get pregnant. It’s needed during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she’s pregnant.
Neural tube defects develop during the first month of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. The two most common types of neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the unborn baby’s spine does not close completely to protect the spinal cord. In anencephaly, most of the brain and skull do not develop. Babies with anencephaly die before or shortly after birth.
Any woman who could become pregnant is at risk for neural tube defects. However, having a previous pregnancy with a neural tube defect, or having a female relative who had a baby with a neural tube defect increases the risk. Other risk factors include taking certain anti-seizure medications, diabetes during pregnancy, obesity, and problems with the genes that regulate folate.
Folate and folic acid are a type of B vitamin. Every cell in the body needs this vitamin for normal growth and development. Folate is the form that is found naturally in foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, poultry and meat, eggs, and grains. Folic acid is the man-made form of the vitamin that is added to packaged foods such as breads, cereals, and other grain products and also made into supplements.
Even though folate and folic acid are found in a wide range of foods, most women do not get the recommended amount in their diets. Having enough folate in the body when pregnancy begins helps ensure that the baby’s neural tube develops normally.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, your doctor can help you figure out how much folic acid is right for you. You may need more than 400 mcg folic acid if you have a health condition or are taking certain medicines.
The experts looked at research on the potential benefits and harms of taking a folic acid supplement to prevent neural tube defects. It found convincing evidence that a daily supplement of between 400 and 800 micrograms of folic acid before and during pregnancy can help protect against the development of neural tube defects. The number of individuals needed to receive folate supplement and reduce one low-weight birth, is approximately 25 deliveries.
Because half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the experts suggest that all women who could become pregnant, as well as those who are planning a pregnancy, take a folic acid supplement.
The experts also looked at harms of taking a folic acid supplement and found that taking folic acid is unlikely to be harmful for the mother or baby.
Your MUSC Health doctor or a member of our health care team will ask about your desire to become pregnant. Since one of every two pregnancies in the U.S. are not planned, all women of childbearing age are recommended to have adequate folate in their diet. You will be encouraged to take a vitamin or increase your intake of foods that are high in folic acid.
How can I get enough folic acid?
It’s easy—you can eat foods like breakfast cereal (100% DV) or bread that have folic acid or you can take a daily vitamin with folic acid.
Eating healthy means getting plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and foods with protein. A healthy diet also includes foods with folate (a different type of folic acid) such as:
Adult immunization Flu
Herpes Zoster (Shingles)
Health Topics and Lifestyle