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Pregnancy : Folic Acid for a Healthy Pregnancy

National Folic Acid Awareness Week and National Birth Defects Prevention Month in January serve as reminders of how important vitamin B9, or folic acid, is for a healthy pregnancy. Supplemental folic acid, taken at least one month before conception and continuing through the first trimester of pregnancy, greatly reduces the risk of neural tube defects, including spina bifida, cleft palate, some heart defects, and brain damage.

Experts recommend that all women of childbearing age take a daily supplement of 400 mcg of folic acid daily. It's crucial to have enough folic acid in your system by the early weeks of pregnancy, since many neural tube defects happen shortly after conception -- before a woman even knows she's pregnant. Studies show that women who take folic acid supplements before conception and during their first trimester can reduce the risk of having a child with a neural tube defect by 72 to 100 percent.

All of the B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that the body doesn't store them, making supplementation essential. Many foods, including bread, pasta, and rice, are fortified with 400 mcg of folic acid per serving. Beans, citrus fruits, egg yolks, and dark green vegetables are also good sources of folate. However, the body doesn't absorb folate (the natural form of folic acid found in food) as easily as it absorbs synthetic folic acid, so most people don't get enough of this B vitamin from diet alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 50 percent of pregnancies are planned, so it's important for any woman who could become pregnant to make sure she's getting 400 mcg of folic acid every day. Your natural market will provide a variety of prenatal multivitamins containing adequate folic acid plus all the essential nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy.

Some healthcare practitioners recommend taking a folic acid supplement in addition to a prenatal vitamin, so if you plan on becoming pregnant, first talk to your doctor about how much folic acid is right for you.

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