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You may have heard that folic acid is important during pregnancy. You may have also heard that you need it when trying to conceive. But did you know that you should take this B-vitamin even if you’re not planning to become pregnant?
Since the 1950s, we have known that low levels of folic acid during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects of a baby’s brain and spine, called neural tube defects (NTDs). The most common types of NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida may cause minor physical problems to lifelong disabilities, including severe paralysis and mental retardation, while the latter may cause stillbirth.
Folic acid is essential for many functions in the body — especially during the first few weeks of life when important growth and development happens for babies. Usually, a baby’s brain and spine are already formed before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.
This is why it’s important to have enough folic acid in your body before you become pregnant. The National Council on Folic Acid reports that taking folic acid before pregnancy reduces the risk of NTDs by up to 70 percent. Considering also that half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, if you’re capable of getting pregnant, you should be taking this essential vitamin each day.
In 1998, the government required that folic acid start being added to certain foods, decreasing certain birth defects by almost 20 percent. Good sources of folic acid include dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, asparagus, broccoli, etc.), citrus fruits, dried beans and fortified cereals, grains, breads and pastas.
Keep in mind, it’s difficult to get all the folic acid you need from food, so don’t rely on your diet alone to get adequate amounts. Experts recommend that all women of childbearing age take a daily folic acid supplement.
Before getting pregnant, women should take a multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. During pregnancy, women should take a daily prenatal vitamin containing 600 micrograms of folic acid. As always, ask your doctor what is recommended for you.
Unplanned pregnancies happen every day. Get adequate amounts of folic acid now to protect your baby later.
Get more information about folic acid and pregnancy.
Learn more about pregnancy and childbirth at Edward-Elmhurst Health.
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