Prevention of Birth Defects
Women who get enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can help reduce their risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain and spine, called neural tube defects.
In the U.S., about 45% of pregnancies are unplanned. To help prevent these birth defects, women need to get enough folic acid every day, even if they are not planning a pregnancy.
- All women of childbearing age are recommended to consume 400 micrograms of folic acid every day as part of a healthy diet. This includes teenagers and younger girls whose bodies have begun to change to prepare them for being mothers someday.
- One of the easiest ways for women to meet this recommendation is to take a folic acid supplement or a multivitamin tablet every day that contains 400 micrograms of folic acid. Eating foods fortified with folic acid is another way to help meet this recommendation. Many breakfast cereals contain 400 micrograms of folic acid per serving. A healthy diet also should include plenty of folate-rich foods.
- Recommendations for folic acid intake are supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the National Academy of Sciences, the March of Dimes, and professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Emerging research shows that folic acid may help to reduce the risk of other birth defects of the heart, face (cleft lip, cleft palate), urinary tract, and limbs.
An adequate intake of folate from food and/or supplements may help to reduce the risk for certain diseases or conditions including:
- Cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease and stroke.
- Certain cancers such as breast and cervical*.
- Diseases that affect the brain or mental function such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and depression.
There is some controversy as to whether folic acid is associated with an increased risk for colorectal cancer or developing pre-cancerous adenomas (polyps). If you are at higher risk for colorectal cancer (e.g., over age 50, have a family history, have been previously diagnosed with polyps or colorectal cancer), make sure you see your doctor to discuss having regular screenings for precancerous adenomas, which may reduce the chances of developing colorectal cancer.
Although research has not confirmed that folate can reduce the rates of these serious diseases, studies so far have shown promising results.
*Benefits were seen for women who have other risk factors for this disease, such as a family history (breast cancer), high intake of alcoholic beverages (breast cancer), or infection with human Papillomavirus (cervical cancer).
Folate is needed for good health and may help reduce the risk of serious birth defects and some chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers.