Folic acid, known as folate in its natural form, is one of the B-group of vitamins. Folate is a water soluble vitamin which means you need it in your diet every day because it can't be stored in the body. It is found in small amounts in many foods.
We all need folic acid/folate to produce red blood cells and it is one of the important vitamins in pregnancy. During pregnancy, women need to take extra folic acid to protect their baby from neural tube defects like spina bifida. This is particularly important in the early stages of pregnancy.
What foods contain folic acid?
Good sources include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and peas. Other useful sources include fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, chickpeas, brown rice, and fruits such as oranges and bananas.
What is the current advice if you are thinking of having a baby?
If you are pregnant or thinking of having a baby you should take an additional 0.4 mg (400 micrograms) folic acid supplement daily, from the time you stop using contraception until the 12th week of pregnancy. In Scotland, all pregnant women are entitled to free healthy start vitamins which contain folic acid, vitamin D and vitamin C.
If you have had a baby with a neural tube defect, or have a family history of neural tube defects you will need to take a higher dose of folic acid supplement (5 mg) before pregnancy and during the first 12 weeks. Women with certain medical conditions, such as epilepsy or diabetes may also require a higher dose of folic acid. This higher dose is only available on prescription. Ask your midwife or GP.
What is the current advice for the general population?
Unless you are pregnant or thinking of having a baby, you should be able to get all the folate you need by eating a varied and balanced diet, including green leafy vegetables. Adults need 0.2 mg (200 micrograms) a day.
What happens if I take too much folic acid?
People who take folic acid supplements should be aware that it is important not to take more than 1 mg (1000 micrograms) per day as this could be harmful
Vitamin B12 deficiency may not be identified in people who are taking high doses of folic acid, as it can hide the vitamin B12 deficiency. This is a particular concern for some older people who have a problem absorbing vitamin B12 and become anaemic. If this is not treated correctly, vitamin B12 deficiency can eventually lead to damage of the nervous system. However, this is very rare.