Folic acid is a B vitamin that the body needs to make new cells. It’s critically important to women who are planning to get pregnant because folate or folic acid can help prevent birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Both of these defects occur very early in fetal development when development of the neural tube—a hollow structure from which the brain and spinal cord form—is incomplete.
In order for folic acid to help prevent these birth defects, a woman must begin taking folic acid at least a month before she conceives and while she is pregnant. Because many women don’t discover that they’re pregnant until a month after conception, experts recommend that all women of childbearing age take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid.
Several foods, including bread, pasta, rice and breakfast cereals, are fortified with 400 mcg of folic acid per serving. Folic acid may be listed on food packages as folate, which is the natural form of folic acid found in food.
If you’re planning a family, visit the Centers for Disease Control for excellent resources on folic acid, healthy pregnancy, birth defect prevention and much more. And consider an inexpensive baseline blood test to ensure your folate levels are adequate.