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February 2019

Don’t Forget the Folic Acid

You’ve probably heard about folic acid in relation to pregnancy: It’s well-known that taking it regularly before and during early pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in babies. But there’s much more that this B vitamin does for your health.

Salad dressing dripping onto leafy greens

What is folic acid?

Folic acid helps your cells work properly. It helps form red blood cells and produce DNA, which carries genetic information. It works in tandem with vitamin B-12 and vitamin C to help the body break down, use, and create new proteins.

Everyone needs folic acid, not just women who are pregnant or planning a family. Folate is the naturally occurring form of the vitamin, while folic acid is the synthetic form found in supplements and some foods.

What foods have folate?

Folate is found naturally in many different foods, including vegetables (especially dark leafy greens), fruits, beans and other legumes, and nuts. Since 1998, the FDA has required food manufacturers to add folic acid to enriched bread, cereal, wheat and corn flour, and other grain products.

What are its health benefits?

Besides preventing neural tube defects in babies, folic acid and folate have been studied for other potential effects on health. Some of the things researchers have learned so far:

  • Folic acid might reduce the risk of having a premature baby and help prevent other birth defects like congenital heart problems.

  • Folic acid supplements lower blood homocysteine levels and in combination with other B vitamins, have been shown to help prevent stroke in some studies.

  • A low blood level of folate is linked to depression and a lower response to treatment with antidepressants, though more research is needed to fully understand this connection and whether folic acid might help antidepressants work better.

Are you getting enough folate?

Certain groups of people are more likely than others to have some trouble getting enough folate in their diet. If you fall into one of these groups, you may want to consider supplementing:

  • Women ages 14 to 30, especially before and during pregnancy

  • Non-Hispanic black women

  • People with disorders that affect the absorption of nutrients, like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease

How much should you take?

You can get as much folate as you like from food. But be careful not to go over the upper limit recommended for folic acid found in supplements and fortified foods. Those upper limits are listed in the chart below.


Upper limit

Birth to 6 months

Not established

Babies 7 to 12 months

Not established

Children 1 to 3 years

300 mcg

Children 4 to 8 years

400 mcg

Children 9 to 13 years

600 mcg

Teens 14 to 18 years

800 mcg


1,000 mcg

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 11/7/2018
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