Daily intake of folic acid (aka folate or vitamin B9) before and during pregnancy significantly reduces the risk of several major birth defects. Reductions in neural tube defects, which include anencephaly and spina bifida, have been directly linked to folic acid intake. There have also been significant decreases in cleft defects, such as cleft lip and cleft palate, linked to proper folic acid intake.
Consumption of foods with naturally occurring folate is poor in the United States. Certain grain and flour products are fortified with this important nutrient, but even with fortification most women do not consume enough folate. Therefore, public health officials promote intake of the synthetic version, folic acid, at a recommended amount of 400 micrograms daily for women of childbearing age.
Even for women not planning to become pregnant, folic acid intake is important. About 50% of all pregnancies are not planned, and neural tube defects occur very early (around 28 days after conception). Therefore, starting prenatal vitamins after pregnancy is confirmed, or even suspected, may be too late.
Just like many of the B vitamins, folate has other benefits, as well. Folate is important in the development of red blood cells, which may reduce the body’s susceptibility to certain cancers. Folate deficiency has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some studies have shown that folate supplements reduce depression, with a deficiency being linked to increases in depression and dementia. Similarly, there have also been studies that show that folate slows down the effects of aging on the brain.
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And, as a last note, folate helps keep our hair, skin and nails healthy, too! Folate can even help reduce acne and bring a beautiful “glow” to your skin.
The bottom line: take folic acid every day. Your body, your baby and your brain will thank you!