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The Importance of Folic Acid

Scientists have discovered that the risk of neural tube defects -- which are birth defects of the spine and brain -- plummets when a woman gets adequate amounts of folic acid before and during pregnancy.

Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin that is found in foods such as fortified breakfast cereals, leafy greens, oranges and orange juice, black beans, asparagus, spinach, and lentils. However, to ensure that you get the amount needed to prevent neural tube defects, your doctor will recommend that you take a prenatal vitamin or a multivitamin with 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid every day. It's best to start taking prenatal vitamins before you conceive, but if you haven't, start taking them today. Folic acid is particularly important during these first weeks of pregnancy. You can buy prenatal vitamins at most stores, but check with your doctor to see which one he or she recommends. Or ask the pharmacist at your local drugstore.

Doctors sometimes prescribe additional folic acid supplementation to women who are at extra high risk of delivering babies with birth defects, such as women who have had babies with neural tube defects or women who have diabetes or epilepsy. Be warned, though, that you should take only as much folic acid -- or any supplement -- as your doctor recommends. Megadoses of certain vitamins and minerals can harm your baby.

Originally published in You & Your Baby: Pregnancy.

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