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Folic Acid Vitamins (Birth Defect Information: Exposures and Risk Factors)

MO-10-0005 CBDMP


What is the difference between Folate and Folic acid?

Folate is a naturally occurring B vitamin which plays a role in cell production and division, including the production of red blood cells.7 It is found in many foods such as spinach and leafy green vegetables, dried beans, liver and citrus fruits. Folic acid is the man-made form of folate. Folic acid can be taken as a vitamin supplement and is found in fortified foods, particularly grains, such as cereals, breads, and flours.1

Why should I take a Folic Acid Supplement? What are the benefits?

During pregnancy, folic acid helps the neural tube grow. The neural tube is what develops into the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Without enough folic acid, the neural tube may not close correctly. This  leads to spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord and/or a sac filled with spinal fluid protrude through an opening in the back. Insufficient folic acid can also lead to anencephaly, which is a condition where there is an absence of a large part of the brain and skull.7
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a woman who supplements her diet with folic acid before and during pregnancy may be able to reduce the risk of her baby being born with spina bifida and anencephaly by 50-70%.1  Another study which was published in the British Medical Journal found that taking folic acid supplements during the first trimester "reduced the risk of isolated cleft lip (with or without cleft palate) by about a third."6 Other benefits of taking folic acid during pregnancy include: reduced risk of developing preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure), premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage, and poor growth in the womb.7

How much Folic Acid should I be getting? When should I start taking Folic Acid?

A woman who is pregnant should be getting 400 micrograms (mcg) of Folic Acid daily. In order to get the complete benefits that Folic Acid can offer in preventing birth defects of the brain and spine, a woman should start taking the recommended dose at least 1 month before she becomes pregnant and continue taking it throughout her pregnancy. 1 It is recommended that women of childbearing age get 400 mcg of folic acid every day because many pregnancies are unplanned and because NTDs occur within the first month of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant.3

Why is Folic Acid beneficial to women of child-bearing age?

Folic Acid supplements in the form of prenatal pills are recommended to woman of child bearing age because most women do not get the recommended dosage from their diets. In order to find out if you are getting enough Folic Acid, check the dietary labels on any supplements and foods you purchase. Make sure that it says 400 micrograms (mcg).1 Folic acid is also beneficial to women because it may lower the risks of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancers.7

Are there any side effects?

Most adults do not experience any side effects when consuming the recommended amount each day, which is 400 mcg. There is some concern that taking too much folic acid (800 mcg or more) might cause serious side effects. Don't take more than 400 mcg per day unless directed by your healthcare provider.2

What other vitamins are recommended for pregnant women to help prevent birth defects?4,5

Vitamin / How Much?


      Where it can be found

Iron  - 27 mg



  1. Helps the muscles in both mother and baby develop.
  2. Helps prevent anemia
  3. Can lower the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight.
  1. Prenatal vitamins
  2. Beef, pork, dried beans, spinach, dried fruits, wheat germ, oatmeal or grains fortified with iron

Calcium  - 1,000-1,300 mg




  1. Helps keep bones and teeth strong for mom and baby.
  2. Helps the nervous, muscular and circulatory system stay healthy.
  3. When a pregnant woman doesn't get enough calcium from her diet, the body takes the calcium from her bones to give it to her growing baby.
  1.  Prenatal vitamins
  2. Yogurt, milk cheddar cheese, calcium-fortified foods like soy milk, juices, breads, cereals, dark green, leafy vegetables, canned fish with bones, salmon


DHA (Docosahexaenoic adic) - 200 mg



  1. An omega-3 fatty acid from cold water fatty fish or seaweed.
  2. Helps to support the development and function of the baby’s brain and eyes.
  1. Some prenatal vitamins (may be sold separately.
  2. 2-3 servings per week of salmon, bluefin tuna, mackerel, or herring 3-4,000 mg of a fish oil supplement

 Additional Resources:
  • http://www.marchofdimes.com/pnhec/159_823.asp
  • http://www.mypyramid.gov/mypyramidmoms/pregnancy_weight_gain.aspx
    Last modified on: 7/28/2010 9:00 AM