Folic acid is a form of vitamin B-9 that can dissolve in water. It is a key ingredient in the making of the nucleic acid that forms part of all genetic material.
It is a complex B vitamin, similar to vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-9 and its forms carry out the crucial functions of creating more red blood cells, preventing hearing loss, and preserving the brain health of infants.
This MNT article will look at the functions of folic acid, as well as where to find it and the effects of folic acid deficiency
Vitamin B-9 includes both folate and folic acid and is important for several functions in the body.
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), folic acid is vital for making red blood cells, as well as:
- the synthesis and repair of DNA and RNA
- aiding rapid cell division and growth
- enhancing brain health, although the evidence is mixed and more research is needed
- age-related hearing loss
It is particularly important for women who are pregnant to consume enough folic acid. This helps prevent the fetus from developing major congenital deformities of the brain or spine, including neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
Women planning to get pregnant should take folic acid supplements for a full year before conception to reduce the risk of these developments.
Folic acid is thought to play a preventive role in a range of conditions.
"Periconceptional folic acid [before conception and during early pregnancy] may reduce [autism spectrum disorder] risk in those with inefficient folate metabolism."
Further research is needed to confirm the link.
Cleft lip and palate
A literature review carried out in 2014 concluded that folic acid supplementation might reduce the risk of a cleft palate.
Folic acid is often used to support a methotrexate prescription for rheumatoid arthritis.
Methotrexate is an effective medicine for this condition. However, it is also known to remove folate from the body. This can cause gastrointestinal symptoms for between 20 and 65 percent of people who use the drug.
However, folic acid supplements have been shown to reduce the gastrointestinal side effects of methotrexate by 79 percent. Speak to a doctor for recommendations on how much to take, and how often. 1 milligram (mg) per day is often prescribed.
All women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should consume more folic acid, according to March of Dimes, a research organization focused on preventing deformity and death in newborn infants.
They also recommend that women take folic acid before getting pregnant as well as during the first 4 weeks following conception.
Every woman capable of getting pregnant should be taking daily folic acid supplements. Women over the age of 14 years should take 400 micrograms (mcg) per day, and this should increase to 600 mcg during a pregnancy.
Women should maintain a daily intake of 500 mcg while they are lactating.
The online journal PLOS Medicine wrote in 2009 that females who take folic acid supplements for at least 12 months before becoming pregnant could reduce the risk of having a premature infant by over 50 percent. The researchers concluded:
"Preconceptional folate supplementation is associated with a 50 to 70 percent reduction in the incidence of early spontaneous preterm birth."
Folic acid is essential for the growth of the spinal cord in the womb. It is important that an expectant mother consumes enough folic acid during the earliest stages of development.
This is because the spinal cord is one of the first parts of the body to form in the womb.
Dark green vegetables are good sources of folic acid. Be careful not to overcook them, as the folic acid content can drop considerably when exposed to heat.
The following foods are known to be rich in folic acid:
- baker's yeast
- Brussels sprouts
- egg yolk
- jacket potato
- liver, although women should not consume this during pregnancy
- many fruits, especially papaya and kiwi
- sunflower seeds
- wholewheat bread, as it is usually fortified
It is always better to get nutrients from natural food sources rather than supplements. Seek out these food options and work them into your diet.
Folic acid deficiency occurs when not enough folate or folic acid is present in the body.
- a higher risk of developing clinical depression
- possible problems with memory and brain function
- a higher risk of potentially developing allergic diseases
- a higher potential long-term risk of lower bone density
The Medical Journal of Australia advised in January 2011 that the prevalence of folate deficiency in the country had dropped considerably since introducing the compulsory fortification of wheat flour in breadmaking.
Individuals can develop folic acid deficiency anemia if they do not consume enough folic acid.
As folate is important for producing and maintaining red blood cells, inadequate levels can mean that there are not enough red blood cells to supply the body with a healthy level of oxygen.
This condition can appear in people who require higher quantities of folate and are not taking supplements, such as women who are pregnant and lactating.
Folic acid deficiency anemia can occur in people with underlying conditions, such as sickle cell anemia. It can also affect people with conditions that affect folate absorption. Alcohol abuse or kidney disease can reduce the ability of the body to effectively absorb folate.
Some medications, such as those used for treating rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and seizures, may increase the risk of folic acid deficiency anemia.
The signs and symptoms of folic acid deficiency disease include:
- feeling weak
- sores around the mouth
- memory and cognition difficulties
- irritable mood
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
People with folic acid deficiency anemia are given folic acid pills for daily use. Once folate levels return to normal, the body can produce enough blood cells to allow normal function.
There are no serious side effects when taking folic acid. In rare cases, individuals report an upset stomach.
Even if a person takes more folate than needed, there is no cause for concern. Because folic acid is water-soluble, any excess will be naturally passed in urine.
Folic acid supplements are available to purchase online.