Folic acid is a form of vitamin B that helps the body stay healthy. It is the man-made version of folate, which supports the body's ability to produce red blood cells. Initially, it was used during the 1930s to treat anemia in pregnant women. The vitamin gets its name from the Latin word folium, which means "leaf," because the vitamin is found in leafy vegetables. The synthetic version is available as a supplement.
Everyone can benefit from taking folic acid, but it is especially important for women of child bearing age. The vitamin can help prevent abnormalities in a developing baby's spine, which can lead to spina bifida. It can also reduce the likelihood of anencephaly, a condition in which the brain doesn't develop.
Women who plan on becoming pregnant should start taking supplements that include this vitamin at least three months before conception, since it is most important during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Those who are already pregnant should begin taking it as soon as they find out about their condition. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), pregnant women need 600 mcg daily.
Folic acid is even recommended for women who are not planning on getting pregnant, because nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. HHS suggests that these women take a 400 mcg dose every day. Breastfeeding mothers need 500 mcg.
This B vitamin offers other health benefits. It is good for the blood, and can prevent a person from becoming anemic. Preliminary studies suggest that it may also prevent cancer, and researchers have found a possible link between low levels of folic acid and the occurrence of colorectal cancer. Early data also suggests this supplement may help prevent Alzheimer's disease.
It is important for women to take supplements to be sure that they are getting the daily recommended amount of folic acid. They can get added benefits by eating foods to get pure folate as well. The vitamin is naturally found in fruits, green leafy vegetables, soymilk, peanuts, and beans.
Women can also get folic acid by eating certain fortified foods, and it is regularly added to many commercial flours, breads, and cereals. These foods can be identified by reading the nutrition labels. Due to all of the nutritional benefits that it offers, women can still find value in continuing to take vitamin supplements after their child bearing years are over.