You've no doubt heard that you should take folic acid whilst trying to conceive, but did you know that you should actually start taking it a couple of months before? Periconceptional folic acid in doses of at least 0.36 mg has been shown to prevent approximately 72% of neural tube defects,2,3 and therefore a daily dose of 0.4 mg is widely recommended for all women at average risk from at least 1 month preconception to 12 weeks pregnancy.

Folic acid is a member of the B-vitamin family. It occurs naturally in foods as folates, and is available in synthetic form in vitamin pills. Foods that contain folates include orange juice, green leafy vegetables, and beans. Fortified breakfast cereals, enriched grain products, and vitamins contain a synthetic form of folic acid. The synthetic form is more easily absorbed by your body than the natural form.

The Role of Folic Acid

While researchers don't know why folic acid helps prevent birth defects, it has been shown to decrease the risk of the most common NTDs: spina bifida (the leading cause of childhood paralysis) and anencephaly (a fatal condition in which an infant is born with a severely underdeveloped brain and skull).

Not only does folic acid combat these NTDs, but it may also help keep your baby from developing a heart defect, cleft lip, or cleft palate.

Additionally, a pregnant woman needs folic acid to help support the rapid growth of the placenta and fetus. The nutrient aids in baby's DNA production. Cell division and fetal growth can become impaired without it. One study found that women with folic acid deficiencies were two to three times more likely to have a premature baby or a baby of low birth weight than those who got enough of the vitamin.

Boost Your Intake

It is recommended that all women consume at least 400 micrograms of the synthetic form a day, and that pregnant women consume 600 micrograms, either from a prenatal vitamin or multivitamin, or by consuming a fortified breakfast cereal that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid in one bowl.

Foods that are rich in folates include:

Fruits and fruit juices
Leafy green vegetables
Lima beans
Sunflower seeds
Wheat germ
Fortified Foods

In addition, some foods are fortified with folic acid that your body can absorb more easily than natural folates. Foods that may be labeled "enriched" (required to have 140 micrograms of folic acid per 100 grams of grain) include:

Breakfast cereals