Folic Acid: Helping to Create Healthy Babies Since the Dawn of Humankind

folic acid and birth defects
Dr. Lindsey Mcilvena, MD

In her day job, treating patients living with chronic disease, nutrition and lifestyle are not after-thoughts, they’re central to helping her patients get well. She’s also our go-to expert on plant-based diets.

You’ve probably heard that you need a healthy dose of folic acid every day, especially if you’re thinking about getting pregnant, or if you are in your child-bearing years.

Folic acid is an important B vitamin; it helps to make our red blood cells strong and allows our DNA to replicate correctly. Folate is referred to as an essential vitamin, meaning that we must ingest it because our bodies cannot make folate from scratch.

Folic Acid and Birth Defects – Fighting the Good Fight

Folic acid is particularly important for babies when they are developing in the womb. If a mother is deficient in folate, a variety of problems with the baby’s neural tube may develop.

The skin and muscles overlying the baby’s spinal cord may not properly close, leading to a birth defect called spina bifida. Mild forms of spina bifida may not cause any disability in a baby; conversely, severe cases may lead to death shortly after delivery. Another type of neural tube defect linked to folate deficiency is called anencephaly; in this situation, the brain fails to form properly, and in severe cases is completely absent. Some studies have shown that folic acid is important to prevent heart defects as well as cleft lip and palate.

It’s really important for women who may become pregnant to get adequate amounts of folate before conception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend taking 400 micrograms of folate per day, starting at least one month before conception.

That said, it’s also important for all women in their child-bearing years to get this daily amount, because half of pregnancies are unplanned. This dose of folate can be easily ingested through a prenatal vitamin, but there are also plenty of folate-rich foods available.

Foods that are rich in folate include broccoli, lentils, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, black-eyed peas, spinach, green peas, avocado, kidney beans, peanuts, romaine lettuce, and greens (especially mustard and turnip greens). The exact amount of folate in each of these foods can vary depending on whether it’s fresh or frozen, raw or cooked.

There’s no joking around when it comes to preventing birth defects. It’s important to include folate-rich foods for a healthy diet and follow your doctor’s advice about which prenatal supplements are right for you.

Sources:, Journal of Health Research & Reviews, NCBI



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