Many women know that folic acid can provide a host of health benefits if they’re planning on getting pregnant or have just confirmed a pregnancy. But should you take folic acid supplements if you’re not planning on conceiving? And how much folic acid should a person consume? January 3 – 9 is National Folic Acid Awareness Week and a perfect time to learn more about this important vitamin.
What Is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps your body with cell growth and reproduction. “Folic acid” and “folate” are different forms of the same vitamin – folate is found naturally in foods like leafy greens and beans, while folic acid is found in multivitamins and fortified foods like cereal or breads. Folic acid is easier for your body to process than folate.
What Are the Benefits of Folic Acid?
Most importantly, folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) in developing babies by up to 70 percent. The most common NTDs of the brain and spine occur in the first few weeks of fetal development – often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.
“Folic acid is critically important to consume for all women capable of becoming pregnant,” said Carlos Cardenas, M.D., a gynecologist at The Institute for Women’s Health. “Half of pregnancies are unplanned, and by the time some women discover they’re pregnant, they may have missed the window for their baby to gain the benefits of folic acid.”
In addition to protecting against NTDs, folic acid reduces the risk of anemia, certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Taking a daily folic acid supplement will also result in healthier skin, hair and nails.
Who Should Take Folic Acid?
Everyone needs folic acid, but women in particular should take a daily supplement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Public Health Service recommend 400 mcg of folic acid every day for all women of childbearing age, and Latina women in particular.
“Statistically, Latinas have higher rates of NTD-affected pregnancies and lower consumption of folic acid,” Dr. Cardenas said. “Simply taking a folic acid supplement in addition to a daily multivitamin can ensure that, if a woman does get pregnant, her baby will be better protected from NTDs.”
If there’s a chance you could become pregnant, incorporating a daily folic acid supplement into your routine is a simple way to guard against NTDs in your baby. Your doctor can prescribe prenatal vitamins or just the supplement alone. Either way, it’s critical to ensuring a healthy start to your pregnancy.
“A recent CDC survey showed that only 12 percent of women are aware that folic acid should be taken before pregnancy,” Dr. Cardenas said. “During Folic Acid Awareness Week, we hope this will change for the better.”
Dr. Carlos Cardenas is a gynecologist with The Institute for Women’s Health, San Antonio. To make an appointment, call 210.226.9705.