Nutrient Spotlight: Folic Acid
Folate, Vitamin B-9, folic acid… This one little nutrient goes by a lot of names. And with good reason. It pulls a lot of weight. Here are the top 10 facts to help you understand folate and its important role in the body.
- Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate or vitamin B-9.
- Folate helps make DNA and other genetic material. It aids in cell division and helps the body make new red blood cells, which are important for carrying oxygen through the body.
- A folic acid supplement is most commonly recommended for pregnant women, because it has an active role in a process to prevent complications and birth defects, like spina bifida.
- Foods naturally high in folate include leafy vegetables; other vegetables, like okra and asparagus; legumes, like dry-roasted peanuts, beans, and green peas; fruits like oranges, grapefruits, bananas, papayas, and cantaloupe; proteins like hard-boiled eggs and liver and kidney meats. Yeast, mushrooms, and tomato juice also provide folate.
- Many foods—including cold cereals, breads, flour, pasta, bakery items, cookies, and crackers—are enriched with folic acid. Since the Food and Drug Administration introduced enriched foods, the number of babies born with birth irregularities has decreased.
- Most people get enough folic acid from their diets. Folic acid deficiency in the United States is rare.
- Not getting enough folate can cause folate deficiency anemia. It relates to the body’s not making enough red blood cells. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, and a pale complexion. Folic acid also works with vitamins B-6 and B-12 to mitigate risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Increasing evidence shows that folic acid may be useful in treating depression, stroke, decline in memory and thinking skills, and many others.
- Like many nutrients, as important as it is to get some, it is just as important not to get too much. Taking too much folic acid could cause undesirable side effects, mask the effects of a vitamin B-12 deficiency, or set off an allergic reaction. Doctors and dietitians recommend no more than 1 mg daily. Note that folic acid is water soluble, so some excess will exit the body in urine.
- Folic acid supplements also interact with some medications. Talk to your doctor before starting any supplement. Be especially careful with folate if you have epilepsy, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, or celiac disease.
Folate is a nutrient that illustrates just how important it is to eat a healthy diet. The foods we eat make a big impact in in our body’s ability to conduct all of its minute processes. The body’s ability to do so truly affects our overall health.
Rachel Rodney, RD, is a registered dietitian with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.