What you need to know about taking folic acid

What you need to know about taking folic acid

You have probably heard you need to take folic acid, a B vitamin, if you’re trying to get pregnant but what is it exactly? Learn about why folic acid is one of the most important supplements you’ll need when you’re trying for a baby and during early pregnancy and just how much of it you need to take.

  • Folic acid, or folate as it’s known in its natural form, is a B vitamin used by our bodies to make new cells
  • During the early stages of pregnancy, folic acid is important as it can help prevent neural tube defects in the brain and the spine of the developing baby
  • A baby’s neural tube develops during the first weeks of pregnancy, often before you know you are pregnant, so it’s recommended you start taking folic acid supplements before you start trying for a baby
  • You can get folate from some food sources, but not enough to meet your needs
  • It’s advisable to take a supplement of 400 mcg of folic acid daily, ideally as soon as you start trying for a baby, and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy1,2
  • If you haven’t been taking folic acid and you discover you are pregnant start taking folic acid as soon as you can.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a synthetic form of a vitamin known as folate, which is from the vitamin B family, and it’s used by our bodies to make new cells. Folic acid is an important nutrient that supports the rapid cell growth needed to make the foetal tissues and organs in early pregnancy. Our bodies can’t store folic acid, which is why you need a regular supply from food or supplements.

Why is it important?

Folic acid is important for a developing foetus, especially as the spine forms. It has been proven to help prevent major birth defects like spina bifida, a condition affecting the spine, and other neural tube defects like anencephaly, the incomplete development of the brain, scalp, or skull.

Why is it important to take folic acid before you get pregnant?

A baby’s neural tube develops in the first weeks of pregnancy, and often before you may know you’re pregnant, which is why it’s important to take folic acid if you’re planning to have a baby. Doctors may recommend all women take a supplement of folic acid since many pregnancies are unplanned. 

Professor William Ledger, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

There is good evidence that having a good level of folic acid in the bloodstream at the time of conception substantially reduces the risk of the baby having neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Public health authorities in UK, USA and elsewhere recommend that healthy women take 0.4 or 0.5mg folic acid per day (this is available in many pre-pregnancy vitamin supplements) and those with risk factors for poor folic acid metabolism, such as women taking anti-epileptic drugs or with MTHFR gene mutations should take 5.0mg per day. What is important is to have it in the egg before it is fertilised.

When should I take folic acid?

Start taking folic acid as soon as you start trying for a baby. By taking folic acid in advance, you can build up enough to help protect your baby against neural tube defects. Continue taking folic acid each day until you’re 12 weeks pregnant1,2.

Doctors may recommend all adult women take folic acid anyway, just in case, as many pregnancies are unplanned.

How much folic acid do I need?

The recommended dose of folic acid is 400 mcg (micrograms) per day. Most folic acid supplements or prenatal vitamins will have the recommended daily amount, but check the label on the bottle to be sure you’re getting the amount you need. 

However, you may need a higher dose if you’ve previously had a baby with a neural defect or you have a history of neural defects in your family. If you think you need more folic acid than the recommended dose, speak to your doctor who can prescribe higher dose tablets.

I just found out I’m pregnant and I haven’t been taking folic acid, what should I do?

Start taking folic acid as soon as you find out you are pregnant and continue taking it until you are 12 weeks pregnant. If you do have any concerns talk to your doctor.

Can I get folic acid from food?

You can find small amounts of folate, folic acid’s natural form, in many foods, like: 

  • broccoli 
  • brussels sprouts 
  • leafy green vegetables, like spinach or cabbage 
  • peas 
  • chickpeas
You can boost your intake with foods fortified with folic acid, for example some brands of bread and breakfast cereals. Check the packaging to see how much folic acid is included. It’s always a good idea to get your nutrients from a balanced diet, but it’s difficult to get the recommended daily amount of folic acid from diet alone, which is why doctors encourage you to take folic acid supplements or prenatal vitamins as well.  ​

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