Folic Acid
Preventing Birth Defects & Other Female Health Issues

Prenatal vitamins


Folic Acid


What Is Folic Acid?
Why Is It Important?
When Should I Start Taking It?
How Much Should I Take?
What Are The Signs Of Deficiency?
Natural Sources of Folate
Can I Have Too Much Folic Acid?
How Can I Prevent Birth Defects?

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What Is Folic Acid?

Also known as folate acid, folic acid is a B vitamin which helps the body generate new cells for growth and wound healing. Folic is a manmade version of folate which is naturally found in some foods. It is a particularly important vitamin for women of childbearing age.

Why Is It Important?

This B vitamin can substantially reduce the risk of birth defects; in particular it can reduce the chances of your baby being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It may also help prevent anencephaly (where the brain does not develop), meningomyelocele (spinal cord problems) and encephalocele (neural tube defect which affects the brain) as well as other common defects such as cleft palate and clubfoot. The occurrence of neural tube defects in America is about 3 in every 1,000 births but the actual incidence is probably higher because this does not take into account unrecognized miscarriages. Children born with neural tube defects are at high risk of early death, paralysis, water on the brain (hydrocephalus) and bladder and bowel disorders. Extensive research shows that incidence rates can be cut by between 50 and 75 percent if folic acid is taken before and during pregnancy.

Lack of folic acid can also cause:

• Spontaneous abortions.
• Infants who are small for their gestational age.
Premature labor.
Placental abruption.

Some recent research has linked low levels of folate with an increased risk in cervical cancer. Low levels have been linked to anemia in pregnancy. Experts also think it may play a role in preventing heart disease in women. More research is still necessary.

Researchers increasingly suspect that the correct dosage of folic acid may reduce the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

Folic acid deficiency is sometimes associated with constipation in older women.

When Should I Start Taking It?

It is generally recommended that all women of childbearing age should ingest 400 micrograms a day. This is a safeguard as nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned and most neural tube defects occur within the first 28 days of conception, often before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. If you are planning a pregnancy then it is important to start taking a supplement at least 2 months before conception. In fact new research indicates that taking folic acid 12 months before becoming pregnant is beneficial.

How Much Should I Take?


Women of childbearing age should consume at least 400 micrograms daily. Most multivitamins and certainly prenatal vitamins contain this dosage.

If you are planning a pregnancy, you will need at least 400 micrograms and up to 800 micrograms a day. Your doctor will advise you. Some doctors prescribe prenatal vitamins with the higher dosages.

During pregnancy it is recommended to take 400 micrograms for the first trimester, although many doctors recommend taking it throughout pregnancy. This can be discussed during your prenatal visits.

Women who are breastfeeding should continue to take their prenatal vitamins and will need 500 micrograms of folic acid a day.

If there is a history of spina bifida or other brain or spine defects in the family a woman trying for a baby may be prescribed up to 4,000 micrograms a day.

Some women may need higher dosages if they are taking medication to treat: epilepsy, type 2 diabetes, lupus, asthma, IBD, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Older women in menopause should still consume about 400 micrograms a day. Combined with a B vitamin supplement it may help reduce some menopause symptoms. It is worth noting that women over the age of 50 are more at risk of not consuming enough vitamin B12.

Buying Supplements

For those who have problems swallowing pills, there are chewable and liquid folic acid supplement alternatives on the market. When choosing any supplement always looks for the NSF or USP label. This is the seal of approval which means that the pills are properly manufactured and contain the amount of nutrient noted on the label. Also check that the pills are not out or date. If there is no expiry date on the bottle, do not buy it.

What Are The Signs Of Deficiency?

• Fatigue
• Weakness
• Sleeping problems
• Mental confusion
• Breathlessness
• Forgetfulness

Natural Sources of Folate

• Dried brewer's yeast
• Soya flour
• Wheat germ
• Breakfast cereals
• Wheat bran
• Beans - kidney beans and chickpeas
• Whole meal bread
• Citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons
• Eggs
• Brown rice
• Cooked spinach
• Raw broccoli

Between 1996-8 the FDA issued a requirement that all breads, cereals and grain products be enriched with folic acid. They require that 40 micrograms of folic acid be added per 100 grams of bread and grain products. Even though most breakfast cereals now have the full recommended amount of 400 micrograms per serving, most women still do not get the recommended daily amount. For this reason, taking a supplement is still important.

Can I Have Too Much Folic Acid?

Yes, although this is quite hard to achieve. It is not recommended to take more than 1,000 micrograms a day. Symptoms of excess include loss of appetite, nausea, flatulence, bloating and sleep disorders.

How Can I Prevent Birth Defects?

The best way to prevent defects is to start preparing for pregnancy before conception. This will involve taking prenatal vitamins, following a healthy diet and quitting any unhealthy habits like smoking and excess drinking.

  Related Articles on Pregnancy Care

For more prenatal care, see the following:

Books on pregnancy: On prenatal nutrition and diet.

Return to Homepage: Womens Health Advice

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