Vitamin Spotlight: Folic Acid

There are a number of vitamins and minerals that are essential for your body to stay healthy. One of them is folic acid. Here, we’re looking at the essentials of this vitamin, including its benefits and purpose.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid, also known as B9, is a water-soluble vitamin part of the B complex of vitamins. This vitamin is a key ingredient in the creation of nucleic acid that forms a part of an individual’s genetic material, which is why it’s so important for pregnant women to consume. While naturally found in many vegetables and fruits, in 1998, federal law required folic acid to be added to a number of popular processed foods like cereal, bread, pasta, cookies and crackers.

While sometimes used interchangeably, there are key differences between folic acid and folate. Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9. While the body readily utilizes folic acid, it’s more skilled at using folate, as it’s the natural form of B9.

What Does Folic Acid Do for the Body?

Folic acid is associated with a number of health benefits and is essential for early development. Folic acid helps with:

  • Preventing DNA changes. Folic acid plays an important role in terms of your DNA, as it acts as a chemical that medicates what is known as “one-carbon transfer reactions.” These reactions help create purines and pyrimidines, which serve as the foundation of DNA. By creating and maintaining new cells, folic acid may help prevent DNA changes that could potentially lead to certain forms of cancer.
  • Forming red blood cells. Together with vitamin B12, folic acid helps your body produce red blood cells, thereby preventing anemia.
  • Nerve function. As folic acid helps in your body’s formation of DNA, this vitamin allows normal cell division and growth.
  • Treating conditions associated with folate deficiency. Folate deficiency can result in ulcerative colitis, liver disease, kidney dialysis and other complications. Folic acid helps treat low blood levels of folate and preventing these issues.
  • Preventing birth defects. Pregnant women are often advised to ensure they’re getting enough folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). These birth defects are serious and can cause problems in the spinal cord and brain, resulting in spina bifida or anencephaly. According to a CDC report, taking the recommended daily dose of folic acid a month before conception and during the first trimester can reduce the baby’s risk of NTDs by 50 to 70%.

What Foods Contain Folic Acid?

Folate, or B9 in its natural form, is found in a number of vegetables and fruits. Some of the foods with the highest levels of folate include:

  • Spinach
  • Collard greens
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, papaya and strawberries)
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils

In its synthetic form, vitamin B9 is found in a number of enriched grain products, including cereals, bread, rice and pasta.

What are the Side Effects of a Folic Acid Deficiency?

A vitamin B deficiency can be very serious and detrimental to your health, especially for fetuses. A lack of folic acid can result in anemia and its related side effects, such as fatigue and tiredness. A folic acid deficiency can also result in a higher risk of developing depression and allergic diseases and potential memory and brain function problems. In pregnant women, a folic acid deficiency can result in the baby being born with a birth defect in the spine or brain.

How Can I Tell if I’m Deficient in Folic Acid?

As folic acid is added to a number of products and is readily available in many fruits and vegetables, it’s fairly easy for the average American to get enough of the vitamin by eating a healthy, balanced diet.

However, a deficiency can occur during pregnancy and breastfeeding (when the body requires more than normal levels of folic acid) and among people with health issues that cause the body to lose folic acid, such as Crohn’s disease or alcoholism.

As folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin, your body won’t build up an excess amount. Instead, any excess will be excreted through your urine. However, there is still such a thing as getting too much folic acid. Too much folic acid during pregnancy could result in the baby developing neurological problems while in the womb.

While everyone’s dietary needs are different, the general recommended dietary allowance for folic acid is 200 micrograms per day. However, doctors may recommend pregnant women take double this, or even more if carrying twins. Breastfeeding women will also require a higher dose.

Most healthy adults who follow a healthy diet typically receive enough folic acid. However, if you’re concerned you may not be getting enough, consider taking a DNA test, such as Pathway Fit®, which looks at which vitamins you may need to optimize. With the guidance of your physician, you can determine an effective diet for you.