Folic acid is a pretty insignificant vitamin - until you start planning to have a baby, or find that you're pregnant.
At that point it becomes an essential part of your diet. Taking folic acid every day, before and during pregnancy, can help to protect your unborn baby from developing a serious condition like spina bifida.
What is folic acid?
You should start taking folic acid as soon as you stop using contraception
Folic acid is a B vitamin. We all take it in small amounts, because it's found in certain foods. It occurs naturally in foods such as beans and legumes, green vegetables, and yeast and beef extracts. Cooked black-eyed peas, brussel sprouts, and broccoli contain particularly high levels.
Some foods are also fortified with folic acid, such as certain breads and breakfast cereals. Check the labels on the packaging.
How will folic acid protect my baby?
When a baby's spine doesn't develop properly in the womb, they are born with what is known as a neural tube defect (NTD). A well-known NTD is a condition called spina bifida. This can potentially happen during any pregnancy.
But, research shows that taking the right amounts of folic acid can significantly reduce the chances of your baby being born with an NTD.
How long do I need extra folic acid for?
You should start taking folic acid as soon as you stop using contraception. This is because it can be hard to know exactly when you will conceive, and the development of the baby's spine happens very quickly after conception.
Folic acid should then be taken until your 12th week of pregnancy.
How much folic acid do I need?
Foods with high folic acid content include cooked black-eyed beans, brussel sprouts, spinach, whole grain bread, spring greens, broccoli and parsnips
Health professionals recommend taking a daily supplement of 0.4 mg (sometimes written as 400mcg) of folic acid.
It is also a good idea to eat foods that are rich in folic acid. These include fortified breads and cereals, fruits such as oranges, and green vegetables like broccoli. But remember not to overcook your vegetables, because this destroys the folic acid. Try steaming instead of boiling for a more gentle method of cooking.
Liver contains high levels of folic acid, but you shouldn't eat it if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy. This is because it also contains high levels of vitamin A which could be harmful to your baby.
Are there any side effects from folic acid?
Research shows that there are no side effects from taking folic acid.
However, if you are already taking any medicines, have epilepsy, or you or your partner have a family history of neural tube defects, you should speak to your doctor. Ideally, before you get pregnant or try for a baby.
Where can I get folic acid supplements?
You can get folic acid supplements from pharmacies (chemists), supermarkets and health food shops. You can also get it on prescription from your doctor. However, unless you qualify for free prescriptions, it is usually cheaper to buy them.
A number of brands are available to buy. Remember to buy a supplement that contains the right amount of folic acid - 0.4mg.
What if I'm already more than 12 weeks pregnant and haven't taken folic acid?
If you are already beyond the 12 week stage of pregnancy and haven't taken folic acid, do not be concerned. The majority of babies are born completely healthy. Folic acid just reduces the risk of NTDs.
If you have any questions or concerns about taking folic acid, speak to your doctor.