Folic acid is a B vitamin. Also called vitamin B9, it occurs naturally as folate in foods. Folic acid is vital for cell growth and development. Folic acid reduces the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTD) like spina bifida.
Benefits of folic acid
Folic acid is a vitamin that is essential for everyone’s health. You need folic acid because it:
- maintains a healthy nervous system
- works with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body
- helps break down, use and create proteins
Women need extra folic acid during early pregnancy to reduce the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect like spina bifida.
Before conception and during pregnancy, a woman needs 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.
Adults and children over 11 years need 0.2mg (200 microgram) of folic acid every day. You cannot store folic acid in the body so you need to have it in your diet every day. Folate is found naturally in some foods and also in foods fortified with folic acid including:
- brussels sprouts
- fortified breakfast cereals
- brown rice
Most people can get the folic acid they need by eating a varied, balanced diet. Folic acid dissolves easily in water and lost from vegetables during cooking. You can prevent this by steaming or microwaving vegetables instead of boiling.
Importance of folic acid to unborn babies
In pregnancy, folic acid is essential for the development of the baby's spinal cord and central nervous system.
An unborn baby's spinal cord develops early, so it's important women take a daily supplement of folic acid when:
- trying to conceive
- likely to conceive
- during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy
Inadequate blood levels of folate before pregnancy or in the early stages, increase the risk of the baby’s spine developing a neural tube defect. This causes a spinal malformation called spina bifida.
Taking folic acid before and during a pregnancy
If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, take a daily 0.4mg (400 microgram) folic acid supplement until the twelfth week of your pregnancy. You can get folic acid supplements on prescription from your GP. You can also buy folic acid supplements in pharmacies and health food shops.
Your doctor may prescribe a 0.5mg daily supplement if you had a previous pregnancy complicated by a neural tube defect.
If you're pregnant and have diabetes or take anti-epileptic medicines, ask your GP about taking folic acid.
Folic acid and breastfeeding
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, it is important to eat a diet rich in folate for your health and your baby's health.