If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant or are already pregnant, you’ve probably heard folks say “Take your folic acid!” numerous times.
But why, exactly, is folic acid so important for pregnancy and prenatal care?
Let’s take a look at the benefits of folic acid and where you can get it.
What is folic acid?
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that all women who are thinking of becoming pregnant, are pregnant or breastfeeding to take at least 400-600mcg (micrograms) of folic acid daily.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that is a man-made version of folate. Folate is the natural form that is found in certain foods. It’s an important nutrient for red blood cell production.
Benefits of folic acid for your unborn baby
Folic acid is essential for pregnant women to take every day because it helps to minimize the risk of certain birth defects in unborn babies. Folic acid is important for brain and spinal cord development, especially the neural tube when a fetus is first developing. If the neural tube doesn’t develop correctly in the womb, the baby could end up having spina bifida or anencephaly.
Can I get folic acid from foods, or do I have to take a supplement?
Folate is found in several different kinds of foods, such as leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and whole grains. There are also a lot of breakfast cereals, rice and kinds of pasta that are labeled “enriched” or “fortified” that have added folic acid in them.
While you can get quite a bit of folic acid in the foods you eat, it’s often not enough to meet the recommended daily amount of folic acid for pregnancy. Many experts recommend taking a folic acid supplement or finding a prenatal vitamin that contains enough folic acid.
Is there such a thing as too much folic acid?
You can’t overdose on natural folate, so you can basically eat citrus fruits and leafy greens for every meal and never have an issue. You can, however, get too much man-made folic acid. If you take too many supplements or eat too much “enriched” food, it’s possible to overload your body with folic acid.
If you take too much folic acid, the most common side effects are stomach and intestinal issues such as cramps, diarrhea, gas, nausea and upset stomach. You can also experience confusion, irritability and sleep problems.
Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you
If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant or are already pregnant, talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need and what type of folic acid supplement will be most beneficial for you and your baby.
If possible, you may want to start taking folic acid daily before you get pregnant so it can build up in your system and combat those birth defects.