Folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, has long been lauded as one of the most important supplements for preventing birth defects. This B vitamin, when taken in daily dosages of 400 mcg before conception, can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects like spina bifida by as much as 80%. It also helps to prevent congenital heart defects.

Less well known, however, is that folic acid supplementation not only prevents birth defects, but also aids in conception . . . for both women and men!

Folic Acid improves Female and Male Fertility

A study involving 18,500 women looked at whether taking a daily multivitamin including folic acid improved fertility. The women who supplemented 6 days a week had a 40% lower risk of ovulatory dysfunction, one of the top causes of infertility in women. Those who took folic acid 3 to 5 days a week had a 30% lower risk. Taking the supplement fewer than 3 days a week did not produce any effects. The findings were presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine annual meeting in 2006.

But the good news doesn’t stop there. One study at the University of California Berkeley suggests that folic acid can improve fertility in men as well. Researchers discovered that men with the highest levels of folic acid in their diets had a 20% reduction in abnormal sperm compared with those with lower intake levels. Since folate is associated with DNA stability, it makes sense that folic acid improves sperm health, although more research is still being done on the correlation.

Folate occurs naturally in foods like dark leafy greens, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, legumes, and citrus. In the United States, products such as breakfast cereals, breads and flours may be fortified with folic acid. But if you are trying to conceive, you probably won’t get enough folate to meet recommended levels with diet alone. Men and women should take 400 mcg of a folic acid supplement daily to increase the chances of conception.

For women, folic acid supplements are often taken as part of a prenatal vitamin that includes iron. Folic acid should continue to be taken for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

For men, folic acid can be found in “male prenatal” products which include other vitamins and minerals linked to male fertility such as zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, selenium and lycopene.

Your doctor may recommend higher dosages, but don’t do this on your own because high levels of folic acid can mask Vitamin B12 deficiencies. The supplement can also interact with prescription medications, especially anti-seizure medications.

The takeaway– keep up the green smoothies, but if you are trying to get pregnant, don’t forget to add a folic acid pill to your diet (and your partner’s!)