Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant need folic acid (vitamin B9 or folate, as it's known in its naturally occurring state) for a number of compelling reasons:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that women who take the recommended daily dose of folic acid starting at least one month before they conceive and during the first trimester of pregnancy reduce their baby's risk of neural tube defects by 50 to 70 percent.
- Some research suggests that folic acid may help lower your baby's risk of other defects as well, such as cleft lip, cleft palate, and certain types of heart defects.
- Your body needs folate to make normal red blood cells and prevent anemia.
- Folate is essential for the production, repair, and functioning of DNA, our genetic map and a basic building block of cells. So getting enough folic acid is particularly important for the rapid cell growth of the placenta and your developing baby.
- Some research suggests that taking a multivitamin with folic acid may reduce your risk of preeclampsia, a complex disorder that can affect your health and your baby's.
How much folic acid you need
To reduce your baby's risk of having a neural tube defect, experts recommend taking 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid per day, beginning at least a month before you start trying to get pregnant.
In fact, because half of the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the CDC, the U.S. Public Health Service, the March of Dimes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and other experts strongly recommend that all women of childbearing age get 400 mcg of folic acid every day. Some groups, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, suggest boosting your intake to at least 600 mcg daily once you're pregnant.
The neural tube – from which your baby's spine and brain will develop – begins to form about three weeks after conception, so it's critical to get a sufficient daily dose of folic acid before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Check the label of your multivitamin supplement to be sure you're getting enough. If you're not, you can switch brands or take folic acid separately. (Never double up on your multivitamins.)
If you're taking prescription prenatal vitamins, they probably contain 800 to 1,000 mcg of folic acid. Again, check the label.
Don't take more than 1,000 mcg per day of folic acid unless your healthcare provider advises you to. In the unlikely event that you have a vitamin B12 deficiency, too much folic acid can mask a condition called pernicious anemia.