Don't let myths about folic acid stop you from having the best pregnancy ever! Most people have heard about the importance of getting enough folic acid during pregnancy. However, folic acid is important even if a baby is still just a "twinkle in your eye." You need to start thinking about folic acid long before that first prenatal appointment. Let's take the folly out of folic acid by answering all of your questions about when you really need to start taking folic acid.

What Is Folic Acid?

folic acid

Folic acid is a B vitamin. Everyone needs folic acid. In fact, it's recommended to have both folic acid and Vitamin B12 together to improve immune function and mood. However, both pregnant and soon-to-be-pregnant women need to focus on folic acid a little more than the general population because getting enough folic acid can help to prevent major birth defects. Here's a glance at all of the roles folic acid plays in health and development:

  • Produces healthy red blood cells.
  • Helps the body make new cells.
  • Helps to form DNA and RNA.
  • Assists with protein metabolism.
  • Breaks down homocysteine to prevent the harmful effects of high amounts lingering in the body.
  • Provides critical nourishment and support during periods of rapid growth.

According to the Mayo Clinic, folic acid may also help prevent heart disease, diseases of the blood vessels, stroke, depression, dementia, and some cancers. While the importance of getting enough folic acid applies to everyone, the focus of this post is the specific benefits of folic acid for pregnancy. Next, take a look at why everyone with babies on the brain needs to be thinking seriously about folic acid.

Folic Acid Benefits Before and During Pregnancy

The main benefit of folic acid during pregnancy is that it helps to prevent major birth defects. "Catching up" with folic acid intake isn't necessarily possible if a woman isn't getting enough folic acid at the start of pregnancy. That's because folic acid helps to form the neural tube while a baby is developing during the early stages of pregnancy. The neural tube is important because it's what eventually forms the brain and spine. As a result, adequate folic acid levels are necessary for preventing two conditions called anencephaly and spina bifida.

infographic - folic acid benefits pregnancy

Common Questions About Folic Acid and Pregnancy

It's natural to have tons of questions about taking folic acid during pregnancy. Let me start this segment by saying that all medical questions regarding your pregnancy should be taken directly to your doctor. While the tidbits shared here can help you to get a solid idea of how you should be viewing folic acid in relation to pregnancy, they can't replace the advice of a doctor.

Can a Woman Take Folic Acid Before Getting Pregnant?

Absolutely! In fact, any woman who is actively trying to become pregnant has every reason to start taking folic acid. As stated above, folic acid is crucial for building the neural tube that goes on to form the brain and spine as a pregnancy progresses. You don't have to take my word for it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all women of reproductive age should get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. This is the threshold for getting enough folic acid to prevent some birth defects. Most birth defects linked with insufficient folic acid occur just three weeks to four weeks into pregnancy. This is before most women even know they are pregnant!

Does It Help in Getting Pregnant?

There's evidence to show that folic acid may assist with fertility. While we don't have much research on the link between folic acid and female fertility, it's known that adequate intake of folic acid can help to lower risks of irregular ovulation. What's more, folic acid's ability to naturally increase progesterone levels helps to equip the uterus to accept and maintain a fertilized egg.

What's the Best Time to Take Folic Acid During Pregnancy?

It's important to begin taking folic acid the moment you suspect you are pregnant. Of course, it's much better if you've already been taking folic acid daily leading up to pregnancy. Getting enough folic acid is especially critical during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, your doctor may recommend that you continue to take folic acid throughout your entire pregnancy.

pregnant woman

How Much Folic Acid Should I Take?

The CDC urges all women of childbearing age to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. However, that amount won't be sufficient once you become pregnant. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stresses that all pregnant women should get at least 600 micrograms of folic acid daily.

How Long Should You Take Folic Acid Before Trying to Conceive?

Folic acid should be a part of your life if you're thinking about having a baby. The general recommendation is to take folic acid for 12 weeks leading up to conception. While you may not always have control over when you become pregnant, it's wise to take folic acid for about three months before you begin trying to conceive.

When Should You Stop Taking Folic Acid While Pregnant?

Don't stop taking folic acid after getting a positive sign on a pregnancy test! The first few weeks of pregnancy are the most critical when it comes to getting enough folic acid. In fact, you might want to consider bumping up to 600 micrograms daily from the 400 micrograms you were taking daily while trying to conceive. During the first three to four weeks of pregnancy, risks for neural tube defects are high because the body uses folic acid to form what will become the brain and spine. Some women are advised to stop taking folic acid after the first trimester. Others are told to take folic acid during all three trimesters. Ask your doctor to advise you on how much folic acid to take at every step of pregnancy.

How Can I Make Sure I Get Enough Folic Acid?

The first step is auditing the amount of folic acid you're already taking in daily. Many people do get enough folic acid through their "everyday" diets. However, assuming that you're already getting adequate amounts of folic acid is a dangerous game to play if you're pregnant. Most pregnant women require some form of supplementation in order to get enough folic acid to prevent birth defects.

"Folic acid can reduce certain birth defects of the brain and spinal cord by more than 70 percent," according to health experts. That makes getting enough folic acid in your diet every day one of the easiest ways to create a healthy pregnancy. Let's talk about how to do it!

Food Sources

Folic acid is found in many of the foods we all eat every day. Many common foods are actually fortified with folic acid. That list includes enriched cereals, breads, and pastas. In fact, starting the day off with a fortified breakfast cereal can be a good way to get in some folic acid early! You can also find plenty of folic acid in unprocessed foods. Here's a list of some of the best sources of folic acid:

  • Eggs.
  • Seafood.
  • Beans.
  • Peanuts.
  • Avocado.
  • Pumpkin.
  • Sunflower seeds.
  • Fresh fruit.
  • Fruit juice.
  • Whole grains.
  • Liver.
  • Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, okra, collards, asparagus, and leafy greens of all varieties.

It's always best to get any of the vitamins we need to thrive through natural foods. While many of the foods we eat every day contain folic acid, few offer enough folic acid to support the needs of pregnant women. That's where supplementation comes into the picture.

Women's Vitamins

Starting each day with a vitamin that contains the recommended amount of folic acid is one of the best ways to prevent birth defects. If you need more than what you can gain through your daily vitamin, it's wise to take folic acid supplements. What's more, your doctor may recommend that you take daily doses of folic acid that are higher than the doses recommended for other people. This often happens when you've already given birth to a child with a neural tube defect. In addition, your doctor may advise you to take a higher dosage of folic acid if you have kidney issues, liver disease, or a condition that requires you to take a medication that depletes folic acid levels.

Final Thoughts: Folic Acid Needs to Be on Your Mind If Pregnancy Is in the Picture

Folic acid is one of the most important pieces to having a healthy, happy pregnancy. While most people have heard that folic acid is important during pregnancy, the truth is that not enough people understand the role that folic acid plays in healthy development during the early days following conception. Getting enough folic acid during the first three to 12 weeks of pregnancy can dramatically reduce your risks for neural tube defects. The only thing better than getting enough folic acid at the start of pregnancy is getting in the habit of taking folic acid in the months leading up to conception. Every woman of childbearing age needs to have folic acid in her life!

About the Author
Tami Smith, CPT, Nutritionist

Tami Smith is a certified Nutritionist and an ACE certified fitness trainer, specializing in pre and post-natal fitness. She studied business and earned her bachelor's degree in Business Economics. Tami is a mom of two and women's health advocate. Her passion is to help people live a fit, healthy life through proper nutrition and exercise!

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