Mother and Baby

Your guide to folic acid before and during pregnancy

Folic Acid

Folic acid is important for pregnant women, as it helps the foetus to develop healthily. It also reduces the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida. 

Here is everything you need to know about folic acid. 

When should I take folic acid?

The Department of Health recommends that women who are trying to conceive should take a daily supplement of 400mg of folic acid – and continue to take this dose during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

During the first 12 weeks of your pregnancy, your baby’s spine is developing so folic acid is very important. It is safe to continue to take folic acid after 12 weeks.

If you didn’t start taking folic acid supplements before you became pregnant, you can start to take them as soon as you find out.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) has suggested that cognitive skills in eight-year-olds could be increased if their mums continued to take folic acid after the first 12 weeks.

Dr. Carrie Ruxton from the Health Supplements Information Service commented:

“The results showed that the group of children whose mothers received folate supplements displayed a significantly better ability to solve response conflicts.

This is an important indicator of superior cognitive function because the process of solving conflicts involves understanding other people’s points of view, using language to resolve disputes and considering different strategies and solutions.”

How much folic acid do I need to take?

Your recommended daily allowance of folic acid is 400 micrograms a day if you're pregnant. 

The NHS says your doctor may tell you to take a higher dose of folic acid if there's a higher risk of neural tube defects during your pregnancy.

You may have a higher risk if you have/are:

  • Had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect
  • Have a neural tube defect
  • Or your partner have a family history of neural tube defects
  • Have diabetes
  • Very overweight
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Taking certain epilepsy medicines

Side effects of folic acid:

Although most adults don't experience side effects from taking folic acid, the NHS says high doses can cause: 

  • Feeling sick (nausea) - but if you're pregnant, this is more likely to be morning sickness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloating or wind

They advise talking to your pharmacist or doctor if these side effects bother you, get worse or don't go away. 

Can folic acid increase male fertility?

While a healthy diet should give men all the folic acid they need, the science behind men taking on additional folic acid suggests that high levels of the nutrient in a man’s diet can lead to higher-quality sperm, which, in turn, leads to fewer birth defects.

A study by the University of California at Berkeley found that ‘men who had lower levels of folic acid in their diet had a higher rate of abnormal chromosomes in their sperm.’

The researchers found that men reporting the highest intake of folate (folic acid) had 19 percent lower rates of sperm with abnormal numbers of chromosomes than men with moderate folate intake, and 20 percent lower rates compared with men in the low folate intake group.

Learn more about how taking folic acid can be effective for prospective dads: The importance of folic acid for male fertility

Where can I buy folic acid supplements?

You can buy folic acid supplements from pharmacies, large supermarkets, health food stores, online or from your GP. 

The NHS says if you want to get your folic acid from a multivitamin tablet, make sure the tablet does not contain Vitamin A (or retinol).

Folic acid supplements to buy:

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What foods contain folic acid?

You can add certain foods to your diet that contain levels of folic acid, although a supplement might be easier as you know you’re getting your recommended amount all in one go with a supplement.

Foods that contain folic acid include:

  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Brown rice
  • Granary bread
  • Breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid

Liver is rich in folic acid but is NOT safe to eat during pregnancy – liver is rich in Vitamin A, which can cause birth defects in your baby.

Nutrimum cereal bars contain your recommended dose of 400mg of folic acid in each bar – handy to grab and eat on the go, without having to take a tablet.

These bars can be helpful if morning sickness means you have trouble taking pills, plus you can nibble on a bar at your leisure. 

Read more: 9 folic acid-rich foods you should definitely eat if you're pregnant

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  • Author: Sophie Knight Sophie Knight
  • Job Title: Contributing writer

Sophie is a journalist and mum of one, and previously worked for Mother&Baby for two years before moving on to write about family cars and consumer advice for Parkers.co.uk

She is passionate about raising awareness around postnatal depression and is a Mental Health First Aider for Bauer Media.

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