What Is Folic Acid, and What Does It Do?
Folic acid, or folate, is a water-soluble B-complex vitamin (B9). Folic acid refers to the synthetic vitamin used in supplements, and folate is the form found in foods. This nutrient is essential for the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin. It is also crucial for the synthesis of DNA and thus the division and growth of cells. Given these functions, folic acid is critical to the normal development of the fetus. Of all of the vitamins championed in pregnancy, folic acid has particular importance in your baby's neurological development. Inadequate folic acid intake during pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida and malformation of the brain.
Taking folic acid before you conceive and during the first months of your pregnancy has been proven to reduce the occurrence of spina bifida and related neurological birth defects in babies by as much as 72 percent. Folic acid supplementation may also reduce cleft palate and cleft lip.
New research at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates that low a folate intake in men appears be associated with higher incidence of chromosomal abnormalities in their sperm. So to be on the safe side, make sure Dad-to-be is getting his leafy greens or an appropriate supplement, as well.
Folic acid isn't only good for babies though. It is an emollient sometimes used in natural cosmetics; The Dana Farber Cancer Institute is researching its role in cancer prevention; and some researchers have found evidence that it may slow the effects of age on the brain and reduce the risk of stroke!
How Much Folic Acid Do I Need?
A standard recommendation is that women who have never had a child with NTD take 400 micrograms (mcg, or 0.4 milligrams) of folate each day starting before conception and continuing through breastfeeding. Some multivitamin preparations contain 800 mcg of folate and some experts think that even up to 1000 mcg per day is safe. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 mcg of folate if you are trying to conceive or expecting; confer with your doctors on their recommendations.