In recent years, there has been a push from organizations like the March of Dimes and the Centers for Disease Control urging women of childbearing age to make sure they get the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of folic acid, also known as vitamin B9. Women who are actively trying to get pregnant may want to consider a separate folic acid supplement. Folic acid remains important throughout pregnancy and prenatal vitamins will provide a good supply. Studies have shown that adequate levels of folic acid in pregnant women can drastically lower the chances of their babies developing neural tube defects. The neural tube is the part of an embryo and fetus that is the core of the central nervous system, it later develops into the brain and spinal cord.
Neural tube defects develop early in the first trimester, during the first weeks of pregnancy. Many women do not yet know they are pregnant during this time, so waiting until they find out they are pregnant to begin taking folic acid will not have the desired effect. One of the more commonly occurring neural tube defects is spina bifida, when babies are born with part of their spinal cord exposed because the neural tube did not close correctly in development.
Folic acid is one of the B complex of vitamins. It is present in many foods that are part of an otherwise healthy diet, including green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and asparagus. It is also found in legumes like black beans and lentils. Some foods, like breakfast cereals and some breads and pastas, are fortified with vitamins, usually including folic acid. In addition to including foods high in folic acid in your diet, it is a good idea to take a vitamin supplement that is either folic acid alone, or a multivitamin that contains folic acid. Generally, advice to take large amounts of vitamins in diet or supplement form has to be tempered against the fact that some vitamins in high levels can be toxic. This is not the case, however, with folic acid. Folic acid can be taken in large amounts and not cause toxicity.
Another plus to folic acid is that it is good for you, as well as your developing baby. Both men and women benefit from folic acid, which helps your body produce healthy red blood cells. Research has shown that folic acid may be beneficial in preventing heart disease, stroke, and colon and breast cancers.