A Vitamin for Healthy Moms and Babies

Pop Quiz: What vitamin is associated with a 50–70% reduction in birth defects? Answer: Folic Acid

I recently wrote about the importance of eating your vitamins through food, but getting enough folic acid from natural sources can be tough. Folic acid is an essential B vitamin necessary for proper cell growth. It’s vital to the development of a baby’s brain, spinal cord, and central nervous system and integral in preventing birth defects such as spina bifida, anencephaly, and cleft lip and palate. Here’s the catch: In order for folic acid to provide the best protection against birth defects, levels of the vitamin need to be high in a woman’s body before she becomes pregnant and through the first three months of pregnancy.

Because nearly half of the pregnancies in the US are unintended, it’s important that reproductive-age women build up their folic acid stores, whether planning a pregnancy or not. ACOG recommends that all childbearing-age women take 400 micrograms of folic acid each day. Women who have had a child with a neural tube defect or certain other birth defects, are pregnant with twins, have particular medical conditions (such as sickle cell disease), or take some forms of medication (such as antiseizure medication) may need more.

Our bodies can’t process folate—the naturally occurring form of folic acid found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and beans—as easily as the man-made form. Folic acid-enriched breakfast cereals, breads, flours, pastas, rice, and other grains can help, but even women who eat diets high in these sources may not get enough. To make sure you get the recommended amount, take a daily supplement or multivitamin containing 0.4 milligrams or 400 micrograms of folic acid.