Why Women Need Folic Acid (Even If They’re Not Pregnant)

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Folic acid. Photo: iStockphoto/Getty Images

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently reiterated its stance that women who either are or might eventually get pregnant should take folic acid daily. While I’m not pregnant, I’m also not celibate and could want a kid one day (who knows?), so this raised alarms. I tracked down two experts to explain why folic acid is so crucial for any woman who might want to get pregnant to take, and to hear how much of it we even need.

So, what is folic acid? While its name may make it sound like some weird chemistry experiment, folic acid is really just a B vitamin.

What does it do? According to Dr. Joseph R. Biggio, a professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham at School of Medicine and member of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the vitamin plays a vital role in a number of key things that keep your body going. It helps tissues grow and repair themselves, in addition to helping the body produce blood cells. Also, people who don’t get enough folic acid are at risk of developing anemia, which creates a whole host of health problems. These benefits are seen in both women and men.

Why is it so important for pregnant women to take? Well, folic acid helps prevent very serious birth defects of the brain and spine called neural-tube defects, Alina Flores, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told me. The most common of those defects is spina bifida, which occurs when the neural tube of the spine doesn’t close all the way, leading to spinal cord and nerve damage. The defect generally forms by day 21 or 22 of a pregnancy, which Flores notes is often before women even know they are pregnant.

Does that mean women who aren’t pregnant yet should take it? Yes! Up to half of pregnancies in the U.S. aren’t planned, so the medical community encourages any woman who can become pregnant to take folic acid, Flores said.

How much folic acid should I take? The amount of folic acid a person should take depends on their age and whether they’re pregnant. Luckily, the National Institutes of Health has a handy guide for that. But for women over the age of 18, they’re generally encouraged to take 400 mcg per day. That goes up to 600 mcg for pregnant women. Breastfeeding women are recommended to take 500 mcg per day, as well, Dr. Biggio added.

But how can I even get folic acid? In general, it’s pretty easy to get folic acid through your diet. Dr. Biggio notes that you can find it in a ton of fruits, meats, and dairy products, especially dark-green vegetables and other fresh (and not processed foods). However, a bunch of flours, cereals, and breads are also enriched with folic acid, he said.

So should I just eat folic acid or take it in a supplement? You could get your folic acid either way, but it may be a good idea to get it in a supplement just to make sure you’re getting the proper amount. Most multivitamins specifically designed for women typically have 400 mcg of folic acid, Dr. Biggio noted, but you can also buy folic-acid supplements over the counter at your local drugstore.

Who shouldn’t take folic acid? Generally, folic acid is safe for most people, but if you have a vitamin B12 deficiency, you might want to watch out, Dr. Biggio said. That’s because folic acid can actually mask the signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency. If you think you’re at risk of a B12 issue, your doctor can run lab tests to be sure. Then, once it’s treated appropriately, you can take folic acid.

Why Do People Keep Saying Women Need to Take Folic Acid?