Folic acid, also known as folate or B9, is one of the primary vitamins recommended for women who are trying to conceive. It is also crucial during the first months of pregnancy, experts agree.
It keeps red blood cells healthy and helps to prevent anemia. It also helps to prevent neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida and anencephaly.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, anencephaly occurs when the head of the neural tube does not close, results in the absence of a portion of the brain, skull or scalp. Additionally, Spina Bifida is the most common, permanently disabling birth defect in the United States and occurs when the baby's spine does not close, reports the Spina Bifida Association.
Folic acid can be found in many food, such as green leafy vegetables like spinach, in sunflower seeds, and liver. The United States fortifies all flour and many grains and cereals with folic acid as well. Many other countries also fortify food, but not all.
While the vitamin is found in much of the food we eat, it is recommended that women take a supplement up to a year before becoming pregnant and during pregnancy because it is difficult to gauge how much folic acid is in their diet.
Folic acid is important in the production and division of new cells and in the synthesis of DNA, key for heredity.
One recent study published in the PLoS Medicine journal noted that women who take folic acid for a year prior to conception reduce the rate of pre-term births by 50%.
The study, by researchers from the University of Texas, was published on May 12. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for this vitamin, in the United States is 400 mcg (micrograms). For pregnant women, that number rises to 600 mcg, while those who are breast-feeding are suggested to take 500 mcg.
Folic acid can also be taken in excess as well. Generally, no more than 1000 mcg should be consumed between supplements and food, experts agree.