Folic acid is a B-vitamin often lacking in women’s diets. When consumed in adequate amounts by women before and during pregnancy, folic acid reduces the risk of serious birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects. Many other pregnancies affected by neural tube defects end in miscarriage or stillbirth.
Folic acid is required for the production of DNA, which is necessary for the rapid cell growth needed to make fetal tissues and organs early in pregnancy. To prevent neural tube defects, it is important for a woman to have enough folic acid in her body both before and during pregnancy. Neural tube defects occur during the first month of pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant. Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it is important for all women of childbearing age to make taking folic acid part of their daily routine.
Foods rich in folic acid include fortified breakfast cereals; enriched breads, pastas, and grains; dried beans and peas; orange juice, oranges, cantaloupe, avocados, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, lima beans, nuts and peanut butter. Although folic acid is found in many foods, it is difficult to get enough of the vitamin from food alone. The body absorbs folic acid in multivitamins more easily than the form of the vitamin found naturally in food. For women who have difficulty taking pills, some cereals are fortified with 100% of the recommended daily amount of folicacid.
Many women do not consume the amount of folic acid recommended to prevent neural tube defects. The Institute of Medicine recommends that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin with 400 mcg of folic acid every day along with eating a varied, healthy diet. Women who have already had a baby with a neural tube defect should consult their doctors for advice about how much folic acid is right for them.