Deficiency - folic acid

Alternative names
Folate deficiency, Folic acid deficiency

Definition

Folate, also called folic acid, is a type of B vitamin. Folic acid is found naturally in dark-green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains. Not getting enough folate results in a form of megaloblastic anemia.

In addition, folic acid is required for the development of a healthy fetus. It plays an important part in the development of the fetus’ spinal cord and brain. Women should begin eating foods and supplements containing folic acid 2-3 months prior to conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Folic acid deficiency can cause severe birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, known as neural tube defects. In some cases, there may be no noticeable signs of folic acid deficiency, and it is diagnosed in pregnant women only after a child is born with a neural tube defect. Usually, though, your health-care provider can detect the defect with blood work and ultrasound during your prenatal checkups.

If women were to take the recommended amount of folic acid before they conceived and through the first trimester of pregnancy, 50-70% of these cases could be prevented. Yet recent research by March of Dimes shows that many women are unaware of the importance of folic acid.

The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board recommends that adults should have 400 micrograms of folate daily. Women capable of becoming pregnant should receive this amount with folic acid supplements, not just fortified foods, to ensure the proper daily intake.

Mothers who are at high risk for having a baby with spinal defect usually will be told to take 10 times the recommended dose of folic acid. This higher dose (4 mg) is only recommended for women who have had family members with spina bifida or who are on drugs that increase their risk, such as some epilepsy medicines. High doses like these have not been shown to help mothers at average risk.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 6, 2012
by Dave R. Roger, M.D.

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