Folic acid is a B vitamin. It is used in our bodies to make new cells. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before she is pregnant, it can help prevent major birth defects of her baby’s brain and spine. These birth defects are called neural tube defects or NTDs.

Women who are planning a pregnancy should begin taking a multi-vitamin with folic acid at least three months before getting pregnant. However, since about half of all pregnancies are unplanned it is important that all women of childbearing years take a multi-vitamin with folic acid every day whether they plan to get pregnant or not.

Studies show that taking the B vitamin folic acid before pregnancy decreases the risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect (NTD) by at least 50 percent. The two most common NTD’s are spina bifida and anencephaly.

NTD’s happen early in pregnancy, 15 to 30 days after conception, before a women even knows she is pregnant. (Learn more about NTD Testing). In Utah, the number of infants born with neural tube defects has decreased over the years.

Public health professionals recommend that all women between 15 and 44 years of age get 400 micrograms (400 mcg or 0.4 mg) of folic acid each day, either through a supplement or vitamin, or through foods enriched with this essential nutrient. Certain breakfast cereals are now fortified with synthetic folic acid, as are several grains and pastas. Most over-the-counter multi-vitamins contain the necessary amount of folic acid. Women, and men, are also encouraged to eat foods rich in folate, the type of folic acid found in foods, in addition to taking a multivitamin with folic acid every day. Foods rich in folate include green leafy vegetables, orange juice, and beans.

Studies show that folic acid may do more than just prevent certain birth defect. It may also prevent certain cancers, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Maternal health conditions, or the medications used to treat certain conditions may increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect. Women who have diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension or other medical conditions should visit with a health care provider before becoming pregnant. Women who take medications for these conditions and who become pregnant, are advised not to stop taking their medications, but to talk with their health care provider as soon as possible.


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