This week is National Folic Acid Awareness Week! Folic acid is especially important to women who might become pregnant, as it can help prevent serious birth defects of the brain, neck and spine. Recent studies suggest that it can also help lower the risk of neural tube defects and orofacial clefts (cleft lip and palate). Notably, folic acid has been shown to lower the risk of anencephaly (the absence of a large part of the brain and skull) and spina bifida (an opening in the spinal column) by 50 to 70%.
Much of the baby’s growth and development happens very early in pregnancy, even before most women know they’re pregnant. Experts estimate that women need to start taking folic acid at least one month before they become pregnant for it to prevent birth defects, so it’s important to make folic acid-enriched foods and vitamins a part of your daily routine.
The benefits aren’t limited to your baby: your body needs folic acid, too. The acid helps to create healthy new cells in the body, from hair to nails to skin and blood cells. Without it, blood cells become unstable, and the body is susceptible to disease. The vitamin also protects your liver, allowing it to continue purifying your body. Folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin that your body cannot store, so it should be taken every day to replenish your body’s supply.
Many foods are now being fortified with more folic acid, such as grains, pastas and breakfast cereals. Check the nutritional facts label on your favorite products to see how much they contain. Many cereals now contain as much as 100% of the recommended daily value. Additionally, prenatal vitamins typically contain folic acid. If you’re not yet taking a prenatal vitamin, you can also look for multivitamins with added acid, or buy folic acid pills.
Boost your diet’s vitamin delivery potential by eating folate-rich foods like oranges, spinach and cashews. For more, see “Five ways to get more folate.”