Reproductive Health Center, Tucson, Arizona

The Importance of Folic Acid

You’re trying to get pregnant. Maybe you’re tracking your fertility and hoping to conceive naturally, or maybe you’ve moved on to using advanced technology (such as IVF) to get pregnant. Either way, you don’t have to worry about prenatal vitamins until after you’re pregnant, right?

Not quite. There’s actually one vitamin that you should definitely be taking while trying to conceive. That vitamin is folic acid.


Folic Acid and the Nervous System

Folic acid is a vitamin, in the B vitamin group. The body uses it to make new cells. Some tissues, such as skin, must make new cells continually; also, throughout the body, tissue damage must be repaired with new cell growth. So everyone needs folic acid for optimal health.

Folic acid is even more important for women who may become pregnant. A lack of folic acid in the mother’s diet is strongly linked to a type of birth defect known as a neural tube defect. The most well-known of these is spina bifida, in which the bones that protect the spinal cord don’t form all the way, leaving the spinal cord and nerves unprotected and highly vulnerable to damage. More serious types of neural tube defects also exist, including anencephaly, in which parts of the brain and skull are missing and the baby usually does not survive. So it’s very important that you make sure you have enough folic acid to protect your baby.

The key is that folic acid consumed in the month before a woman becomes pregnant is what matters. The neural tube forms and closes very early in the embryo’s life, before the woman even knows that she’s pregnant. Also, the mother’s body needs folic acid to be optimally healthy, and to have enough folic acid available to keep the baby healthy. The research indicates that the month before pregnancy is the crucial time to be taking folic acid. If you’re trying to conceive, then you could get pregnant during any month, so you should always be taking folic acid.


How Much Folic Acid Do You Need?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all women consume at least 400mcg (micrograms) of folic acid every day. Because folic acid is important in the month before pregnancy, the recommendation is applied to all women, because so many pregnancies are unplanned. However, it’s extra-important that you get your daily 400mcg of folic acid if you’re trying to get pregnant.


How Can You Get Your Folic Acid?

The easiest way to ensure that you’re getting the right amount of folic acid is to take a folic acid-containing vitamin every day. This could be a prenatal vitamin, or a regular multivitamin with folic acid. If you prefer, you could take a vitamin pill that only contains folic acid. Just make sure that your vitamin contains the full recommended dose of 400mcg (micrograms) per day.

You can also get your folic acid through food. To help reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the population, many cereals are now fortified with folic acid. So you could choose to eat a fortified cereal daily; check the cereal box to make sure that your cereal has the full recommended dose, and make sure you eat enough of it every day. Other foods, including leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and beans, also have high levels of folic acid. However, if you choose to consume your folic acid from these foods, you will need to plan your diet very carefully to ensure that your folic acid consumption is adequate every day. Because this can be difficult, taking a folic acid supplement while you’re trying to become pregnant is recommended to ensure the health of your baby. (As an added bonus, it also helps your own skin, hair, and nails stay healthy and vibrant!)

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