Why every woman needs folic acid
If you’ve ever been pregnant, your doctor has likely recommended that you increase your intake of folic acid. But the health advantages of folic acid reach far beyond pregnancy – this supplement offers lifelong benefits for all women.
The good news is that folic acid is easy to add to your daily regimen. Once you understand why it’s important, how much you need and where to find it, getting the recommended daily amount is simple. And your health will be better for it.
What exactly is folic acid?
Folic acid is the manufactured form of folate, or vitamin B9. Folate is an essential nutrient that helps your body:
- Make and repair DNA
- Prevent birth defects of the spinal cord and brain (neural tube defects)
- Produce red blood cells
Folate exists in certain fruits, vegetables and nuts, but your body may have difficulty absorbing naturally occurring folate due to some digestive conditions, certain medications or alcohol consumption. In its manufactured form, folic acid is more easily absorbed via supplements and enriched foods and can help you consistently reach optimal levels of vitamin B9.
Benefits of folic acid
Folic acid has health benefits for women of all ages. It is used for many reasons, including:
Preventing birth defects and pregnancy-related complications
Folic acid plays an important role both before and during pregnancy. It prevents neural tube defects, which include defects of the brain and spinal cord such as anencephaly and spina bifida. Those defects develop in the first few weeks after conception, before you even know you’re pregnant. During pregnancy, doctors recommend women take folic acid supplements to help prevent additional fetal defects and pregnancy-related complications.
Avoiding folate deficiency symptoms
A folate deficiency can happen in just a few weeks if you don’t get enough folate and folic acid or have a condition that prevents your body from absorbing or using it. Without folate, your body will not make enough healthy red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to your body’s tissues. As a result, you may develop folic acid-deficiency anemia with symptoms, including weakness and fatigue.
Promoting brain health
Researchers have linked low levels of folate to decreased brain function and an increased risk for dementia. Studies also show that taking folic acid supplements may:
- Improve brain function in people with mental impairments
- Help treat Alzheimer’s disease
- Reduce the symptoms of depression (when used together with antidepressants)
Improving heart health
Folic acid may help reduce your risk of heart disease by reducing high blood pressure and improving blood flow. Studies show that supplementing with folic acid may lead to a 4% reduction in overall risk for heart disease and a 10% reduction in stroke risk.
Staying healthy after menopause
Women who have gone through menopause should still plan to get the recommended amount of folic acid each day. In addition to the benefits listed, it may reduce your risk of certain cancers, such as cervical cancer and colon cancer. Folic acid may also help to prevent type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Getting enough folate
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that every woman supplement her diet with folic acid. It needs to be taken every day because it is water-soluble, and your body cannot store it.
The recommended daily amount of folic acid varies according to your age and condition. The CDC suggests:
- Non-pregnant women of any age: 400 micrograms (mcg)
- Pregnant women: 400 – 800 mcg
- Women who have spina bifida or have a family member with spina bifida who want to get pregnant: 4,000 mcg
To get the recommended daily amount of folic acid, add food high in folic acid or supplements to your daily routine and consult with your doctor about the right dose for you.
Foods high in folic acid and folate
Getting enough folic acid in your diet can be as easy as eating a bowl of fortified cereal each morning. Check the labels of any enriched product to see how much folic acid is in each serving. Foods high in folate and folic acid include:
- Beans and legumes
- Citrus juices
- Egg yolks
- Enriched breads, cereals and other grain products
- Leafy green vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
Folic acid supplements
You can add folic acid daily through a folic acid-only pill or a multivitamin. Talk to your doctor about the proper dosage for you – take too little and you’ll miss out on the benefits, but take too much and you risk masking deficiency of a different vitamin, B12, which can result in nerve damage.
If you are pregnant, your prenatal vitamin should contain the recommended amount, but check the label to be sure. To choose a multivitamin or supplement when you aren’t pregnant, read the label to ensure it says “400 mcg” or “100%” next to folic acid. Your doctor or pharmacist can assist you in choosing the right supplement for you.
To learn more about the best way to get the folic acid you need, reach out to your primary care provider. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, talk to your obstetrician/gynecologist about supplementing with folic acid.