Folic acid, known as folate in its natural form, helps:
- the body form healthy red blood cells
- reduce the risk of central neural tube defects, such as spina bifida , in unborn babies
A lack of folic acid could lead to folate deficiency anaemia .
Good sources of folic acid
Folate is found in small amounts in many foods.
Good sources include:
- brussels sprouts
- liver (but avoid this during pregnancy )
- fortified breakfast cereals
How much folic acid do I need?
Adults need 200mcg of folic acid a day. It can't be stored in the body, so you need it in your diet every day.
Most people should be able to get the amount they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.
But if you're pregnant or trying for a baby, it's recommended that you take 400mcg folic acid supplement daily from the time you stop using contraception until you're 12 weeks pregnant. This is to help prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida, in your baby.
Make sure you speak to your doctor if you have a family history of conditions like spina bifida (known as neural tube defects) as you may need to take a higher dose of 5mg of folic acid each day until you're 12 weeks pregnant.
Read about vitamins and minerals during pregnancy for more advice about this.
What happens if I take too much folic acid?
Taking doses of folic acid higher than 1mg can cover up the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency , which can eventually damage the nervous system if it's not spotted and treated.
This is particularly a concern for older people because it becomes more difficult to absorb vitamin B12 as you get older.
What does the Department of Health advise?
The Department of Health recommends that folic acid supplements are taken by women who are pregnant or trying for a baby.
Women who aren't pregnant or planning for a baby should be able to get all the folate they need by eating a varied and balanced diet.
If you're taking folic acid supplements, it's important not to take too much, as this could be harmful.
Taking 1mg or less a day of folic acid supplements is unlikely to cause any harm.
Some women have an increased risk of having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect, and are advised to take a higher dose of 5mg of folic acid each day until they're 12 weeks pregnant.
This is important and unlikely to cause harm, as it's taken on a short-term basis, but speak to your doctor first.