Folic Acid and Pregnancy

Most people know that eating a well-balanced diet is a key component of leading a healthy life. The foods you eat are packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients that help prevent disease and support your body’s normal functions. You may also be aware that the food you eat contains folate, which is important for pregnant women. The vitamin, known as folic acid when it’s naturally occurring in food, is credited with helping to break down and create new protein, and form red blood cells and DNA. It is available in a variety of food, including dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, brussels sprouts and asparagus. Foods fortified with folic acid are common and include enriched breads, pasta, rice, flour and ready-to-eat cereals.

Folic acid is one of several B vitamins that are needed for human metabolism. When consumed in combination with vitamins B6 and B12, the vitamin is used to convert amino acids such as glycine, glutamate and homocysteine into methylated forms that are incorporated into DNA. It is also necessary for the proper function of a number of enzymes involved in energy production and metabolism. Folic acid is also used to treat certain types of anemia and to reduce the toxicity of methotrexate, a drug commonly prescribed to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

Although folic acid is an essential nutrient for most adults, it’s especially important for women who are expecting or planning a pregnancy. The CDC recommends that all women of reproductive age take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily, in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet. This is because folic acid can lower the risk of major birth defects of the brain and spine (neural tube defects). These are conditions that develop early in pregnancy, shortly after conception and often before a woman knows she’s pregnant.

The word “folate” derives from the Latin term for foliage, which is a rich source of the vitamin. The best natural sources of folic acid come from leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli. A cup of cooked spinach provides about 100 mcg of folic acid. Enriched breads, pasta, flour, rice, ready-to-eat cereals and other grain products are common food fortified with the nutrient, and they provide more than double the amount of folic acid that would be found in a typical serving of unfortified foods. Folic acid is also added to some processed meats, such as sausage and hot dogs.