We receive a lot of questions about folic acid. Here are three of the most common misconceptions people seem to have.
Myth #1: Folic acid reduces the risk for ALL birth defects.
TRUTH: Folic acid reduces the risk of certain birth defects.
Folic acid reduces the risk for a very specific type of birth defect called a neural tube defect (NTD). The neural tube is the part of a developing baby that becomes the brain and spinal cord. A NTD can happen when the neural tube doesn’t close completely. This results in birth defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida. If all women take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, it may help reduce the number of pregnancies affected by NTDs by up to 70 percent.
Myth #2: Folic acid will help me to get pregnant.
TRUTH: Folic acid is important to take before pregnancy, but it will not help you to become pregnant.
Folic acid does not help a woman to conceive. However, it is recommended that ALL women take folic acid, even if they are not trying to get pregnant. This is because folic acid can help prevent neural tube defects only if it is taken BEFORE pregnancy and during the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
The neural tube is one of the first structures that is formed in a developing embryo, therefore you need to make sure you are taking folic acid BEFORE you are pregnant. And because nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it’s important that all women take folic acid every day, even if they are not planning to get pregnant. So take a multivitamin that has 400 micrograms of folic acid in it every day. Most multivitamins have this amount, but check the label to be sure.
Myth #3: I eat a healthy diet, so I can get enough folic acid from food.
TRUTH: It may be possible, but most women will not get enough from their diet.
Folic acid is naturally available in many fruits and vegetables, including:
- Beans, like lentils, pinto beans and black beans
- Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and Romaine lettuce
- Peanuts (But don’t eat them if you have a peanut allergy)
- Citrus fruits, like oranges and grapefruit
Many flours, breads, cereals, and pasta are fortified with folic acid, as well. This means they have folic acid added to them. You can look for the words “fortified” or “enriched” on the package to know if the product has folic acid in it.
However, it’s hard to get all the folic acid you need from food. And according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), your body only absorbs about 50 % of that. So even if you eat foods that have folic acid in them, make sure you take your multivitamin each day too.
Some women, like those who’ve had a pregnancy affected by NTDs or women with sickle cell disease, may need more folic acid. Talk to your provider to make sure you get the right amount.