Why taking folic acid is important if you're sexually active

If you're sexually active, it's really important to take a 400mcg folic acid supplement every day, because you never know...

Read on to find out why, or use the quick links below.

If I’m not planning a baby, why do I need to know about folic acid? 

If you’re having sex there’s always a chance you could become pregnant, even if you’re trying hard not to!

No method of contraception is 100% reliable (although long acting types, like implants and coils [IUDs] come very close). For example, 9 women in every 100 combined oral contraceptive pill users will get pregnant in any year, and "the pill" can lower your folate levels too.

Even if you have been told (or have reason to believe) that you have conditions affecting your fertility such as PCOS or endometriosis, there is still a risk of pregnancy, so you still need to know about folic acid. 

All women who might possibly become pregnant are advised to take a 400mcg supplement of folic acid every day to help reduce the chance of serious or life-threatening conditions like spina bifida or anencephaly. If you get pregnant unexpectedly, this could be one less thing to worry about.  

No contraceptive is 100% effective

The NHS website has a useful guide to help you choose the right contraception for you.  Make sure to check out the 'typical use' rates.  They might surprise you

NHS Contraception Guide


So what is folic acid and what is it for? 

Folic acid, known as folate when it is found in food and being used by the body, is Vitamin B9. Folate is used in the body to make DNA in new cells. Lack of folate can increase the risk of anaemia, depression and some cancers, so everyone needs folate every day to stay healthy. We can’t store much folate in the body so every day it needs to be eaten in food or taken in supplement form as folic acid. 

How much folate/folic acid do I need? 

All adults and children over 11 years old should have 200mcg of folate in their diet each day. Good sources of folate include: 

  • Beans, lentils & peas 
  • Oranges and orange juice 
  • Broccoli, spinach, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale. 
  • Yeast & beef extracts 
  • Wheat bran and other wholegrain foods 
  • Fortified foods (some brands of cereal - check the labels) 
  • Poultry, pork, liver and shellfish. 

Many UK women don’t eat enough folate in their diet and those who are dieting are even more likely to be deficient. For more information, check out this factsheet, courtesy of the British Dietetic Association.

If you are sexually active, there is always a chance that you could become pregnant. Shine recommends that you should take an additional supplement of 400 mcg daily, just in case.  

Folic acid helps to prevent babies from being born with serious health conditions known as neural tube defects (NTDs), e.g. spina bifida and anencephaly. We can store some in our blood cells, but folic acid needs to be taken well before you’re pregnant to build up enough to protect against NTDs. When taken for 8 weeks before conception and in the early weeks of pregnancy, the chance of NTDs is reduced by around 70%. 

To make sure you have enough in your system to protect you and a baby in the event of pregnancy it’s best to take it every day for at least 8 weeks before falling pregnant. It is obviously impossible to plan for an accidental pregnancy so taking folic acid just in case is your “insurance” should you fall pregnant unexpectedly. 

If you have a health condition such as diabetes or coeliac disease, if you are very overweight or take certain medications for epilepsy, it’s essential that you take folic acid, even if having a baby is not on your agenda yet. Talk to your GP or Family Planning Clinic about the best contraception for you and speak to your GP about a prescription for a higher dose of folic acid (5 mg) as all of the above, increase the chances of a baby being affected by a NTD. 

TIP: Taking your folic acid supplement at the same time every day can make it easier to remember, although it doesn’t have to be taken at the same time every day in order to be of benefit. 

Can I get the extra 400mcg through diet?

It's not easy, or particularly exciting trying to consume the extra amount through diet alone, and remember, you need to do it every day. See for yourself what 400mcg looks like by trying to build your plate of food in this great online game, courtesy of the Florida Folic Acid Coalition. 

Play the folic acid game


Why start now? 

If you are having sex or plan to have sex, you should be taking folic acid. 

Even if you are not planning to have a baby, or feel that you don’t want a baby, an accidental pregnancy can catch you off guard. Nearly half of all pregnancies are not planned, and often you won't find out that you’re pregnant until it is too late for folic acid to be of benefit. If you’ve been taking folic acid every day, you can feel reassured that you have lowered the chance of Neural Tube Defects, should you decide to continue with the pregnancy. If you get pregnant unexpectedly, this could be one less thing to worry about.  

Taking folic acid supplements does not mean you are trying to get pregnant and it does not make you more likely to become pregnant if you are using contraception.  

If you do later decide to try for a baby, you’ll already be well prepared. About a quarter of women get pregnant the first month they stop contraception, so being ready beforehand gets you both off to a great start. 

What else can I do to keep healthy? 

As well as your folic acid supplement, boost your diet by eating folate rich foods such as vegetables, beans and lentils. 

Try to maintain a healthy weight and to exercise regularly. 

Don’t smoke and drink alcohol in moderation. If you drink excessive amounts of alcohol, you are more likely to be deficient in folate. 


What are the other benefits of folic acid? 

Folate/folic acid is essential in many of the body’s processes. It supports the brain and nerves, good mental health, the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and because it helps make DNA, all cells can benefit.  


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