The Importance of Folic Acid

The Importance of Folic Acid By: Stephen M. Zweibach, M.D.

Folic acid is one of the B vitamins found in a variety of foods, such as leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans and peas, although in small amounts. Many women naturally consume some amount of folic acid in foods and because grain products in many countries are fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate.

Why is folic acid important?

Taking a folic acid supplement during pregnancy can prevent up to 70-90% of birth defects involving the neural tube, such as spina bifida.

When is folic acid most important?

Neural tube defects occur within the first several weeks of pregnancy, so it is important to have adequate folic acid when a woman first becomes pregnant. Since most women don’t have adequate folic acid levels, and most do not know when they become pregnant (50% of all pregnancies, although often desired, are unplanned), supplementation is recommended for all.

How much folic acid should a woman take?

It is recommended that all women of childbearing age take a daily 0.4-0.8 mg (400 to 800 mcg) supplement, beginning at least one month before attempting conception. This amount of folic acid is typically included in any women’s multivitamin, and in prenatal vitamins.

Women who have a higher risk for neural tube birth defects should take 4 mg folic acid daily beginning at least one month prior to conception by prescription. These include those who have had a prior pregnancy or family history of neural tube defects, have diabetes, and those on antiseizure medications, or other medications such as triamterene, trimethoprim, or sulfasalazine, for example.

All women planning pregnancy who have medical conditions and/or take regular medications should have a pre-pregnancy visit with their ob-gyn to discuss their risk factors and to see if folic acid supplements are recommended prior to conception.

Be sure to contact your Women’s Care provider if you are thinking of becoming pregnant.