Why should pregnant women take folic acid?

Dr. Kevin W. Windom, MD
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

Folic acid can reduce the risk of birth defects. There is 1 mg of folic acid in all prenatal vitamins. Taking folic acid during pregnancy will help reduce neural tube defects. Neural tube defects are defects such as Spina bifida or other abnormalities of the brain or spinal cord. Although the risks of these types of defects are very low, numerous studies have shown that folic acid will decrease the risk of this to almost negligible. Folic acid is also important in helping with anemia. Folic acid along with iron are in all prenatal vitamins; and this will help keep your blood count stable throughout your pregnancy.

Most health professionals agree that taking a prenatal multivitamin and mineral formula, of which folate is a constituent, is a wise move, given the low risk and high benefit. A folate insufficiency during pregnancy is associated with anemia, low birth weight and premature infants and neural tube defects.

Folic acid is necessary during pregnancy. It helps with the formation of the spinal cord. There is folic acid in prenatal vitamins, but in some cases, an OB will want you to increase your intake. It is important to be followed by an OB from the beginning of your pregnancy.

Your baby needs the nutrient folate because folate has a direct effect on DNA. Folate is an essential ingredient for one of the building blocks of DNA, and without folate, you have to substitute a back-up building block (called uracil), which isn't as good as the other (thiamine) and can cause birth defects, primarily spina bifida.

Also, a lack of folate has also been shown to increase childhood cancer rates by more than 60 percent. A startling statistic, for sure, but one that reinforces the notion we just talked about—in-utero nutrients influence out-of-utero health. If you're even thinking about getting pregnant, you need to supplement with 400 micrograms folic acid every day.

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Women who are pregnant must take folic acid to prevent serious birth defects that affect the brain and spine—most commonly, anencephaly and spina bifida. In fact, women who are trying to become pregnant or who may become pregnant should also take this important B vitamin for at least three months before conceiving. Most multivitamins contain the amount you need to take: 400 micrograms (mcg) a day.

Folic acid is a B vitamin. Our bodies use it to make new cells. Everyone needs folic acid. But for women who can get pregnant, it is really important! If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before she is pregnant, it can help prevent major birth defects of her baby's brain and spine. These birth defects are neural tube defects or NTDs. Women need to take folic acid every day, starting before they are pregnant to help prevent NTDs.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Public Health Service urge every woman who could become pregnant to get 400 micrograms (400 mcg) of synthetic folic acid every day.

For women who are already pregnant, it is important to continue to take folic acid every day. Folic acid is needed to help your baby grow and develop.

Dr. Dawn Marcus

It is important to take a daily prenatal vitamin with folate (also called folic acid). Research proves that women taking prenatal vitamins with folate have a lower risk of having babies with birth defects affecting the heart, arms and legs, or spinal cord (spina bifida). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health organizations recommend that all women capable of becoming pregnant should get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. This can be achieved by diets that include folate-enriched bread, cereal, rice or pasta; lentils, legumes, leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits; or with a vitamin supplement. To make certain you're getting enough folate, most doctors recommend taking a vitamin supplement with folate when you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

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This B vitamin helps prevent malformation of the fetal neural tube, the precursor to the brain and spine. Since 1998, when the FDA mandated folate fortification in breads, cereal and pasta, neural tube defects have plummeted 30 percent in the United States, sparing thousands of babies from spina bifida (abnormal spinal cord development) and anencephaly (impeded brain development). A daily dose of folic acid during the first trimester of pregnancy has been found to reduce neural tube defects by at least 50 percent. Adequate intake prior to pregnancy and during the second trimester can also significantly lower the risk of preterm delivery as well. Doctors recommend increasing folic acid before pregnancy, because brain and spinal cord defects typically develop during the first weeks of gestation, often before a woman knows that she’s pregnant. In fact, a 1991 study published in the Lancet found that supplementation with folic acid beginning around the time of conception reduced the likelihood of having a baby with a neural tube defect in women who were at high risk for this abnormality (due to a previous affected pregnancy).

The importance of folic acid underscores the dangers of low-carb diets, given that such regimens eliminate foods that are fortified with folic acid. Scientists worry that the declining consumption of folate-rich foods could have grave consequences for the next generation. Top whole food folate sources include spinach, asparagus, collard greens, broccoli, turnip greens, Brussels sprouts and beets.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.