By Annette Pinder

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is responsible for helping maintain normal growth and development in the body. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says folic acid is necessary for helping to produce new cells, and can be essential in the development of cells that are made daily, such as the skin, hair, and nails. It also helps the body make red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body.

Where folic acid shines the brightest is in preventing key birth defects of the brain and spine known as neural tube defects, or NTDs. NTDs develop during the first month of pregnancy when the embryo is under rapid development — a period when many women may not even know they are pregnant. Studies also show that folic acid may help prevent heart defects in a baby, as well as a cleft lip and palate disorders.

The CDC and many obstetricians recommend that women of childbearing age take at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily, ensuring the body has enough residual folate for proper baby development should a woman become pregnant. It is also recommended that women take folic acid a month or two before trying to conceive. Folate also can be found in many fortified foods, such as breads, pastas, rice, and breakfast cereals, and can even be found naturally in peanuts, citrus fruits, asparagus, leafy green vegetables, and many beans. Foods also can be used to boost folic acid in the body.

WebMD says folic acid may help reduce the risk of stroke, some cancers, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and preeclampsia, making folic acid important for everyone.