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Benefits of Folic Acid for Women of Childbearing Years

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 10/7/2010

Folic acid is a man-made version of the B vitamin, folate, which is found naturally in many foods. Folate helps your body produce new cells and prevents anemia. Everybody needs folic acid as a part of their diet, and this is especially true of women who plan to become pregnant.

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    Folic Acid and Birth Defects

    Folic acid prevents birth defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a condition in which the vertebrae does not close properly within the first 28 days after conception. Children with this condition have life-long disabilities and may require surgery. Anencephaly is a condition in which the brain does not fully development and results in death either prior to or shortly after birth.

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    Recommended Daily Allowance

    The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for women during their childbearing years is 400 micrograms (mcg) per day for one month prior to pregnancy and three months following conception. Additionally, a woman should take 600 mcg during pregnancy and 500 mcg while breastfeeding. Some women need more folic acid in their diet based on medications they are taking, past medical history, or a family history of spina bifida. It is important to speak with your doctor about the amount of folic acid you should be taking.

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    Foods Rich in Folate and Folic Acid

    Foods rich in folate include beans and lentils, peas, juices, fruits, soymilk, leafy green vegetables, nuts, sunflower seeds, peanuts and peanut butter, and liver. Foods rich in folic acid include breakfast cereals, breads, flours, pastas, cornmeal, and white rice. Food labels will reveal how much folic acid or folate is in your food.

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    Supplements

    Women can also receive the daily recommended amount of folic acid by taking supplements. Most multivitamins contain 400 mcg. Prenatal vitamins, which can be prescribed by a doctor or purchased over the counter, also contain folic acid. Check the label to see how much folic acid a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin contains. There are also supplements that contain only folic acid. Speak with your doctor before taking supplements.

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    Folic Acid Toxicity

    Women can never get too much folate found in foods naturally, however, it is possible to get too much folic acid. Nerve damage can occur in women who get more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid each day but do not get enough vitamin B12. This risk is greatest for vegans or women over 50. Speak with your doctor about any concerns you may have concerning the toxicity of folic acid.

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    References

    National Women’s Health Information Center. "Frequently Asked Questions: Folic Acid" [Online] 21 October 2008. <http://www.4women.gov/faq/folic-acid.cfm#e>.

    March of Dimes. “Pregnancy & Newborn Health Education Center: Folic Acid” [Online] March 2008. <http://www.marchofdimes.com/pnhec/173_769.asp>.

    American Pregnancy Association. “Folic Acid” [Online] October 2008. <http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/folicacid.html>.