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Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, can reduce the risk of your baby developing a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida, by as much as 70 per cent.
The Department of Health recommends women who are planning a pregnancy take a 400mcg a day folic acid supplement, before conception, and for the first three months of pregnancy, when your baby's neural tube (which forms the brain and spinal cord) is developing.
It's also safe to carry on taking folic acid throughout your pregnancy.
The advice is that the dosage should be increased to a prescription of 5mg a day if you've had: a previous pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect; you or your partner have a neural tube defect or a family history of neural tube defects; or you have diabetes.
The dietary form of folic acid is called folate and is found in foods such as yeast extract, wholegrain cereals, liver, Brussels sprouts, leafy green vegetables, asparagus, brown rice beans, oranges and beer. It is also added to some breakfast cereals.
Folate is also found in liver - but it's not safe to eat liver if trying to conceive or during pregnancy because of its high vitamin A content, which can damage a baby's eye development.
Folate is water-soluble and can't be stored in the body for long, so you need to top up your levels regularly. And up to 50 per cent of folate in foods can be destroyed by cooking or keeping the food which contains it in the fridge for too long.
For these reasons, folic acid supplements are recommended for women trying to conceive (for at least one month before conception) and during the first three months of pregnancy.
Spina bifida means 'split spine ' - it's caused when the neural tube from which the spine and central nervous system develops fails to close, leaving a gap.
Scientists don't know what causes this to occur, but they do know that taking folic acid can reduce the risk of it happening.
Jo Waters is a health writer who has contributed to a variety of newspapers and magazines including the Daily Mail, Mirror, Nurture Magazine and the Express.
See more of Jo Waters' work.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.