Last week was National Folic Acid Awareness Week at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), so this seems like a great time to remind women (and their caregivers) of the importance of folic acid in the prevention of birth defects. By taking the recommended dosage of folic acid daily, women will reduce the risk of neural tube defects by 50% – 70%. In addition, women who take folic acid supplements are less likely to give birth to a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

Folic acid is a B-vitamin needed for proper cell growth and can be found in many multivitamins, as well as many food sources, such as lentils, dried beans and peas, and dark green vegetables.  Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration has required the addition of folic acid to many enriched breads and cereals in order to increase the amount of folic acid in our diets.

The CDC, the U.S. Public Health Service and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), recommends that every woman of reproductive age get 400 micrograms (400 mcg) or 0.4 milligrams of folic acid every day. Most multivitamins contain 400 micrograms or 0.4 milligrams of folic acid. Most prenatal vitamins have approximately 800 micrograms or 0.8 milligrams of folic acid.

It is important for all women of child-bearing age to take this recommended daily dosage of folic acid even if they are not planning pregnancy because folic acid is needed in the first weeks of pregnancy, even before a woman may know she’s pregnant. Because 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned, any woman who could potentially become pregnant should be taking folic acid daily.  Once a woman is pregnant, she should continue to take at least 400 micrograms or 0.4 milligrams of folic acid during the first 3 months of pregnancy.

Some women may need more folic acid.  If a woman has given birth to a child with a neural tube defect, she is at increased risk of having another child with a similar defect. It is recommended that these women should take a higher dose of folic acid (4 milligrams or 4000 micrograms) daily. Women with a family history of neural tube defects are also advised to take an increased dose of folic acid.   In addition, women who take certain medications, like mood stabilizers or antiepileptic drugs, are also advised to take increased doses of folic acid while planning pregnancy and throughout pregnancy.

Ruta Nonacs, MD PhD

Learn more:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Council on Folic Acid

March of Dimes

Updated Estimates of Neural Tube Defects Prevented by Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification — United States, 1995–2011