How much folic acid you need?
To reduce your baby's risk of developing a neural tube defect, experts recommend that you take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid a day, beginning at least a month before you start trying to get pregnant.
In fact, because half of the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the CDC, the U.S. Public Health Service, the March of Dimes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and other experts strongly recommend that all women of childbearing age get 400 mcg of folic acid every day.
Some groups, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, suggest boosting your intake to at least 600 mcg daily once you're pregnant.
Check the label of your multivitamin supplement to be sure you're getting enough. If you're not, you can switch brands or take folic acid separately. (Never take more than one multivitamin a day.)
If you're taking prescription prenatal vitamins, they probably contain 800 to 1,000 mcg of folic acid. Again, check the label.
Don't take more than 1,000 mcg per day of folic acid unless your healthcare provider advises you to. This is particularly important if you are a vegan. Vegans are at risk of being deficient in vitamin B12 and taking too much folic acid would make it hard to diagnose that deficiency.
Food sources of folic acid
Food manufacturers are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to add folic acid to enriched grain products, such as breakfast cereals, bread, pasta, and rice. Some fortified breakfast cereals contain 100 percent of the recommended daily amount.
This is meant to be helpful for women who don't take a supplement and aren't planning to get pregnant, but most women don't eat these foods consistently enough to rely on them as a source of folic acid.
Even if you eat a complete serving of a fully fortified cereal every day, you can't be sure you're getting what you need. (For one thing, synthetic nutrients added to cereals tend to end up in the milk at the bottom of the bowl.)
Foods that are naturally rich in folate are not a good source either. Oddly enough, research shows that the body absorbs folic acid from supplements much better than the folate that occurs naturally in certain foods. What's more, folate can be lost from foods during storage or destroyed by cooking.
So if you eat foods rich in folate, consider them a complement to your supplement. Good sources include:
dried beans, peas, and nuts
dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, collard or turnip greens, okra, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus
citrus fruit and juice
Is a supplement recommended?
Yes. As mentioned above, many authorities, including ACOG and the March of Dimes, recommend that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin with folic acid or a folic acid supplement every single day.
Signs of a folic acid deficiency
The signs of folic acid deficiency can be subtle. You may have diarrhea, anemia, loss of appetite, and weight loss, as well as weakness, a sore tongue, headaches, heart palpitations, and irritability.
If you're only mildly deficient, you may not notice any symptoms at all, but you won't be getting the optimal amount for your baby's early embryonic development.