Why Do I Need Folic Acid Again?

woman holding folic acid pill with glass of water

Recently, the Center for Disease Control released a study which found that daily multivitamin use among women of reproductive age is declining. Why is this such a big deal? Two words: Folic Acid.

What is folic acid?

According to the CDC, “Folate is a general term used to describe the many different forms of vitamin B9”. Folate occurs naturally in a large number of foods, but, as mentioned below, it can be hard to get the daily recommended amount from that food alone.

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Why is it important?

You may have heard that it’s important to start taking prenatal vitamins even before you get pregnant. As it turns out, you should actually be taking them (or a multivitamin) even if you have no plans to get pregnant.

Why? Because it can actually take months before consuming the recommended daily dose of folic acid creates a stable blood folate concentration that will help prevent neural tube defects in a growing baby. And, bad news – you can’t cheat and double up on your multivitamin to build up that concentration faster.

So, whether or not you were planning on becoming pregnant, if you do find yourself with a bun in the oven, it’s super important to have a heck of a lot of folate sprinkled on top. Mothers who are low in folate or folic acid are unknowingly putting their babies at risk for two serious neural tube defects – spina bifida and anencephaly.

What are Spina Bifida and Anencephaly?

Unfortunately, these defects which affect the brain, spine, or spinal cord happen before most women even realize they’re pregnant. The CDC defines anencephaly as “a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull”. Sadly, most babies born with anencephaly cannot survive once they are born.

Spina bifida can range in severity and occurs when the neural tube doesn’t close the way it should, resulting in damage to the spinal cord and nerves.

Okay, I’m sold. How much folic acid should I take?

The recommended daily dose of folic acid is 400 micrograms (mcg). This is the equivalent of 16 eggs or one multivitamin or prenatal vitamin – whichever floats your boat.

Is folic acid the same as folate?

While folate can be found naturally in many foods, folic acid is synthetic and is used in supplements and fortified foods. Although folate and folic acid are both important in the prevention of birth defects, folic acid was chosen over folate for food enrichment purposes because of its more heat-stable nature (since many of the fortified grains end up being baked). Both folate and folic acid are absorbed into the bloodstream to help reduce the likelihood of neural tube defects.

Does it occur naturally?

Great news! Folate does occur naturally in many foods. The Office of Dietary Supplements states that folate is present in “vegetables (especially dark green leafy vegetables), fruits and fruit juices, nuts, beans, peas, seafood, eggs, dairy products, meat, poultry, and grains.”

If you want to add more folic acid to your diet, there are great natural sources. A multivitamin with 400 micrograms is still your best source!

If you’re on the hunt for folate superfoods, you’ll be happy to know that all of the foods that haunted your dreams as a kid (aka spinach, liver, asparagus and brussels sprouts) top the list.

As of January 1998, all enriched breads, cereals, flours, cornmeals, pastas, rice and other grain products were mandated to have 140 mcg of folic acid added to every 100 grams of the product.

In spite of the fact that folate and folic acid are present in a large number of foods, unless you want to add liver and spinach to your daily menu, the micrograms per serving (mcg) of most food can be pretty low, making it hard to fit the required mcg per day into your diet.

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Folate and it's synthetic relative, folic acid, help prevent birth defects. Found naturally or in vitamins, it's important make sure you're getting enough.

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