If you’re pregnant—or planning to be—folic acid should be part of your health regimen, experts say.
"It’s almost a magic pill," says Adam Rappaport, director of the Illinois Spina Bifida Association.
That’s because folic acid, a B vitamin found in enriched grains, orange juice, fortified cereals and leafy green vegetables, helps prevent neural tube defects which develop in the first month of pregnancy, including spina bifida—a developmental abnormality in which part of the spine is exposed at birth, Rappaport says.
Nearly 3,000 pregnancies each year result in neural tube defects, according to the March of Dimes.
Folic acid can prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects, says Dr. Maria Munoz, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Lincoln Park Hospital. The key is to start taking folic acid before getting pregnant—at least three months before, says Munoz.
But even though the best way to get the daily recommended dose, 400 micrograms, is taking a vitamin or supplement, most women don’t know they need it.
Only 9 percent of childbearing-aged women knew folic acid is a vital birth-defect prevention tool, according to a March of Dimes survey. And only 7 percent knew they should be taking folic acid even before becoming pregnant.
Chicago mom Julia Flores, 35, learned the hard way. Ten years ago, her first son, Gabriel, was born with a brain stem malformation, a disorder that experts say folic acid can prevent. Her second son, Nicholas, was an unplanned pregnancy, so Flores wasn’t taking folic acid. Nicholas, born with spina bifida, died after a few hours.
Flores began taking folic acid daily after that. Almost five years ago, she gave birth to a healthy son, Jacob.
"Just take it [folic acid]," Flores says. "If you’re sexually active, there’s always a risk of getting pregnant."
Meg Shreve, Medill News Service