Folic acid is a B-vitamin that is necessary for proper cell growth. If taken before and during early pregnancy from a multi-vitamin or fortified foods, folic acid can prevent from 50% up to 70% of some forms of birth defects called neural tube defects.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) include spina bifida and anencephaly. NTDs affect an estimated 4,000 pregnancies each year. Spina bifida, the most common NTD, is the leading cause of childhood paralysis. Anencephaly, another type of NTD that affects the brain, is always fatal.

In 1992, the United States Public Health Service recommended that all women of childbearing years should take 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid daily to prevent having a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect.

Though it is possible to obtain the recommended dosage of folic acid through foods, it is difficult. The human body actually absorbs the synthetic form of folic acid better than the natural form of folic acid called ďfolate.Ē In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration required the addition of folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, pastas, rice and other grain products in order to increase the amount of synthetic folic acid in the general populationís diet.

Most experts recommend that women of childbearing years should take 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid daily, from fortified foods and/or a daily multi-vitamin, and eat a variety of foods as part of a healthy diet. The easiest way to be sure to get the recommended daily amount of folic acid is to take a multi-vitamin every day.

New research suggests that folic acid can also help prevent other birth defects, such as cleft lip and cleft palate. Additional health benefits associated with folic acid include reductions in cardiovascular disease and colon, cervical and breast cancers. Studies have shown that folic acid, in combination with vitamins B12 and B6, can help prevent recurrence of blocked arteries in patients who have undergone angioplasty (a procedure to unblock an artery of the heart). Folic acid may also help prevent Alzheimerís disease by protecting the neurons critical for learning and memory. Emerging research suggests that folic acid deficiency can also increase the brainís susceptibility to Parkinsonís disease.