This is a topic I would like to shed some much-needed light on. Mainly because folate and folic are used interchangeably but are two very different things. In addition to health as a whole, this is an especially important topic for those who are pregnant or who are wanting to become pregnant. So you may be wondering- What is folic acid good for? What does folic acid do exactly? Why would you take folic acid? How can this key vitamin impact your health? Let’s dive in.
First, let’s start with what Folate is and why we need it. Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is an important water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in many aspects of health. It aids in cell division and helps make new cells by copying and creating DNA. It also helps the body use vitamin B12 as well as certain amino acids. Any biological process that involves rapid growth (fetal development, childhood growth, immune function, and cancer) has the potential to be affected by your Folate status. It is an important key nutrient even after pregnancy and into adulthood because it is necessary for red blood cells to transport oxygen properly, and it also supports the functioning of our nervous and cardiovascular systems. Adequate amounts of B vitamins including folate are important for maintaining good cognitive function throughout life.
Folate is also associated with improved cognitive function and protection against depression and Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help support strong bones, decrease symptoms of restless legs syndrome and promote the health of the nervous system.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate that is found in most prenatal vitamins, supplements and fortified foods. Folic acid for pregnancy is often recommended by many doctors to help ensure that folate needs are met and to protect against pregnancy-related complications. Synthetic folic acid, which is chemically different than folate, is found in supplements and fortified foods and is twice as absorbable by the human body compared to natural folate. While the body converts some synthetic folic acid to folate, it has a limited capacity to do so. Much of the remaining folic acid that is not converted circulates in the blood and tissues unmodified. It is unknown exactly what unmodified folic acid does in the human body. But it has the potential to disrupt normal folate metabolism and there is substantial evidence that it can even promote cancer growth.
Since folic acid is more absorbable than natural folate, we run the risk of excess when we ingest the synthetic form. It would be impossible to get excessive folate from natural foods. The most significant concern of excess folic acid is cancer development. Since folate is involved in DNA synthesis which is crucial for cell growth and cancer cells have more folate receptors on their surfaces and produce more folate-dependent enzymes than normal cells, excess circulating folic acid could feed into this process and allow cancer cells to proliferate. Excess folic acid may also lead to cancer development by producing changes in gene expression.
Folate deficiency on its own is uncommon. Since it typically stems from causes like a poor diet, alcoholism or issues with nutrient absorption, folate deficiency is often found coupled with other nutrient deficiencies. A folate deficiency can have serious consequences, including fatigue, painful mouth sores, and an increased risk of birth defects like heart problems, spina bifida, and anencephaly.
Foods Naturally Containing Folate
Folate can typically be found in fruits, veggies and legumes, including foods like spinach, asparagus, avocados and beans. It’s also found naturally in beef liver, a nutrient-dense ingredient that can supply up to 54 percent of your daily folate requirement.
What is the MTHFR Gene?
The MTHFR gene provides instructions for your body to make the MTHFR protein, which helps your body process folate. Your body needs folate to make DNA and modify proteins. But what happens if you have a certain genetic mutation of the MTHFR gene?
Conditions that have been proposed to be associated with MTHFR include:
- cardiovascular and thromboembolic diseases (specifically blood clots, stroke, embolism, and heart attacks)
- bipolar disorder
- colon cancer
- acute leukemia
- chronic pain and fatigue
- nerve pain
- recurrent miscarriages in women of child-bearing age
- pregnancies with neural tube defects, like spina bifida and anencephaly
Folate in Pregnancy
During the initial four weeks of pregnancy, folate plays an important role in the folding of the neural tube which is the precursor to the brain and central nervous system. In a folate-deficient fetus, the tube may not close completely during folding, causing a neural tube defect. After the folding of the neural tube, folate continues to play an important role in the development of the brain and nervous system. This role is strongly suggested by studies that link low folate status during pregnancy to hyperactivity and other behavior problems in children, and higher folate intake with greater academic achievement in teens.2,3 Consuming folate-rich foods before and during pregnancy may also offer protection against cardiac birth defects, childhood respiratory illnesses, and childhood cancers.4-8
The recommendation for folate for healthy adults is 400 mcg/day and 600 mcg/day for pregnant women. This quantity can easily be met by eating green vegetables, beans and other whole plant foods.
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