Folic acid is a B vitamin. It helps the body make healthy new cells. “Folic acid” and “folate” mean the same thing.
Folic acid is a manmade form of folate. Folate is found naturally in some foods. Most women do not get all the folic acid they need through food alone.
All people need folic acid. But it is very important for women who are able to get pregnant. When a woman has enough folic acid in her body before and during pregnancy, it can prevent major birth defects, including:
- Spina bifida, which occurs when an unborn baby’s spinal column does not close to protect the spinal cord. As a result, the nerves that control leg movements and other functions do not work. Children with spina bifida often have lifelong disabilities. They may also need many surgeries.
- Anencephaly, which is when most or all of the brain does not develop. Babies with this problem die before or shortly after birth.
The results of some studies suggest that folic acid might also help to prevent other types of birth defects.
Folic acid also helps keep your blood healthy. Not getting enough can cause anemia.
Experts think that folic acid might also play a role in:
- Heart health
- Preventing cell changes that may lead to cancer
More research is needed to know this for certain.
Women able to get pregnant need 400 to 800 mcg or micrograms of folate every day, even if they are not planning to get pregnant. (This is the same as 0.4 to 0.8 mg or milligrams.) That way, if they do become pregnant, their babies will be less likely to have birth defects. Talk with your doctor about how much folic acid you need if:
- You are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant. Pregnant women need 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid in the very early stages of pregnancy often before they know that they are pregnant. A pregnant woman should keep taking folate throughout pregnancy. Women should discuss their folic acid needs with their doctors. Some doctors prescribe prenatal vitamins that contain higher amounts of folic acid.
- You are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding women need 500 mcg. Some doctors suggest that breastfeeding women keep taking their prenatal vitamins to be sure they are getting plenty of folic acid while they are breastfeeding and should they become pregnant again.
- You had a baby with a birth defect of the brain or spine and want to get pregnant again. Your doctor may give you a prescription for 4,000 mcg of folic acid. That is 10 times the normal dose. Taking this high dose of folic acid can lower the risk of having another baby with these birth defects.
- You have a family member with spina bifida. Your doctor may give you a prescription for 4,000 mcg folic acid.
- You have spina bifida and want to get pregnant.
Some people also need more folic acid. Talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need if you:
- Are taking medicines used to treat:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease
- Have kidney disease and are on dialysis.
- Have liver disease.
- Have sickle cell disease.
- Have celiac disease.
- Often consume more than one alcoholic drink a day.
How can I be sure I get enough folic acid each day?
Women can get enough folic acid by taking a vitamin pill every day. If you have a hard time swallowing pills, you might try a chewable or liquid product that has folate. Most U.S. multivitamins have at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid. Check the label on the bottle to be sure. Or you can take a pill that only contains folic acid. When choosing a brand of vitamins, look for “USP” or “NSF” on the label. These “seals of approval” mean that the pills have been made properly and contain the amounts of vitamins stated on the label. Also, make sure the pills have not expired. If the bottle does not have an expiration date, do not buy it. Ask your pharmacist for help selecting a product. Please note, if you already are taking a daily prenatal vitamin, you probably are getting all the folic acid you need. Check the label to be sure.
Check the Supplement Facts label to be sure you are getting 400 to 800 mcg folic acid.
What foods contain folic acid?
Folic acid is found naturally in some foods, including leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans (legumes), and whole grains. Folic acid is added to foods that are labeled “enriched,” such as:
- Breakfast cereals (Some have 100 percent of the Daily Value of folic acid in each serving)
- White rice
Check the label on the package to see if the food has folic acid. The label will tell you how much folic acid is in each serving. Sometimes, the label will say “folate” instead of folic acid.
The body does not use the natural form of folic acid (folate) as easily as the manmade form. We cannot be sure that eating foods that contain folate would have the same benefits as consuming folic acid. Also, even if you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, you might not get all the nutrients you need every day from food alone. In the United States, most women who eat foods enriched with folate are still not getting all that they need. That’s why it’s important to take a vitamin with folic acid every day.
Take your folic acid at the same time every day, such as when you brush your teeth, eat breakfast, or give your children their daily vitamins. This way, taking folate becomes a routine. If you can, set up your cell phone or computer to give you a daily reminder.
You can’t get too much folic acid from foods that naturally contain it. But unless your doctor tells you otherwise, do not consume more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid a day. Consuming too much folic acid can hide signs that a person is lacking vitamin B12, which can cause nerve damage. Lacking vitamin B12 is rare among women of childbearing age. Plus, most prenatal vitamins also contain B12 to help women get all that they need. People at risk of not having enough vitamin B12 are mainly people 50 years and older and people who eat no animal products.
I am no longer of childbearing age. How much folic acid do I need?
Older adults need 400 mcg of folic acid every day for good health. But older adults need to be sure they also are getting enough vitamin B12. Too much folic acid can hide signs that a person is lacking vitamin B12. People older than 50 are at increased risk of not having enough vitamin B12. If you are 50 or older, ask your doctor what vitamins and supplements you might need.