Benefits, Food Sources and Intake of Folic Acid
Read: 4 Amazing Benefits of B Vitamins For Kids
From supporting heart health to improving brain function, folic acid is a water-soluble nutrient that you'll want to get enough of.
What is the use of folic acid? What is the function of folic acid in the body? Why do you take folic acid?
Let's go through these questions one by one and explore how this key vitamin can affect health.
Why Do We Need Folic Acid?
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is an important water-soluble vitamin that plays a role in many aspects of health. It helps in cell division and helps to make new blood cells by copying and making DNA.
It also helps the body use vitamin B12 as well as certain amino acids.
Research shows that folate deficiency can have serious consequences, including fatigue, painful mouth sores, and even an increased risk of birth defects - such as heart problems, neural tube defects, spina bifida, and anencephaly.
A folic acid is a synthetic form of folate found in most prenatal vitamins, supplements, and fortified products.
Folic acid is good for pregnancy and is often recommended by many doctors to help protect against pregnancy-related complications.
In fact, in 1991, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that women with a history of pregnancies with neural tube defects start taking 4,000 micrograms of folic acid daily from the time they started planning a pregnancy.
A year later in 1992, the US Public Health Service suggested that women of childbearing age should start getting at least 400 micrograms of folic acid or folate daily through diet, supplements, or folic acid fortified foods.
To prevent dangerous birth defects caused by folate deficiency, many countries around the world have strict regulations requiring food manufacturers to fortify certain products with folic acid.
In the United States, for example, the fortification of cereal grains fortified with folic acid was fully permitted in 1996 and fully implemented only two years later, in 1998.
Studies show that folate is also associated with improved cognitive function and protection against depression and Alzheimer's disease. It can also help support strong bones, reduce restless leg syndrome symptoms and promote nervous system health.
Benefits of Folic Acid
1. Promotes a Healthy Pregnancy
Due to its involvement in DNA synthesis and important enzymatic reactions, folate is an essential component of the pregnancy diet.
During pregnancy, your folate needs even increase to help support fetal growth and development.
Many health experts recommend starting taking supplements or eating more foods containing folic acid before pregnancy to prevent birth defects.
One of the most common benefits of folate is its ability to reduce the risk of neural tube defects that can affect the spine, brain and spinal cord.
However, research shows that meeting your folate needs can also lower your risk of anemia, premature birth, and pregnancy complications.
Research also shows that taking dietary supplements with folate and iron can prevent low hemoglobin or anemia during childbirth.
2. Can Lower Cancer Risk
Emerging research suggests that folate may help in the prevention of certain types of cancer.
A review published by the Department of Medicine at St. Michael in Toronto suggests that maintaining adequate folate levels or increasing folate intake from dietary sources and supplements may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer and breast cancer for certain populations.
Another study found that folate intake may be associated with a lower risk of colorectal, esophageal, and ovarian cancer as well.
Keep in mind, however, that other studies have shown that excessive intake of folic acid from supplements and fortified foods may be associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
More research is needed to fully understand the role of folic acid and folate in cancer prevention and development.
3. Supports Heart Health
Studies show that folic acid supports heart health and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Higher folate levels are linked to lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that can contribute to the formation of blood clots and cause arteries to narrow and harden.
Increasing folate intake can help lower homocysteine levels to prevent heart disease. A 2012 analysis in China found that every 200 microgram increase in folate intake was associated with a 12 percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.
4. Builds Strong Bones
In addition to being associated with a greater risk of heart disease, increased homocysteine levels can also have an impact on bone health. Studies show that folic acid can lower homocysteine levels and affect bone metabolism rate to promote better bone health.
One 2014 study showed that increased plasma homocysteine was associated with reduced folate levels as well as reduced bone mineral density.
Plus, another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that higher homocysteine levels are a risk factor for osteoporotic fractures in older adults.
5. Improve Cognitive Function
Low levels of folate, along with other B vitamins such as vitamin B12, have been linked to cognitive decline and dementia. A study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that low folate status was always associated with impaired cognitive function in the elderly.
One 2016 study concluded that folic acid supplementation was able to effectively improve cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Another study published in 2005 also found that higher folate intake was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Most adults need about 400 micrograms of folate, but the daily requirement increases for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to 600 micrograms and 500 micrograms, respectively.
Folic acid doses can range from 100-800 micrograms, and most prenatal vitamins generally include between 600-800 micrograms of folic acid per serving.
How much folic acid is too much? If you get your folate from healthy whole food sources such as fruits and vegetables, the risk of a folic acid overdose is minimal.
However, taking high amounts of supplemental folic acid or eating lots of folic acid-rich foods can increase the risk of adverse side effects. Therefore, it is best to stick to less than 1,000 milligrams per day from fortified foods and/or supplements.
Ideally, you should get most of your folate from natural food sources such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts. These nutrient-dense foods not only provide folate, they are also rich in other vitamins and minerals your body needs.
However, if you are unable to meet your folate needs through food or have a condition that interferes with absorption, your doctor may recommend taking a folic acid dietary supplement or eating more products fortified with folic acid to help meet your needs.
These may include healthy cereals, whole grain products, fortified breads, pasta, and rice.
What foods contain folic acid? Which contains natural folate, right?
Folate is usually found in fruits, vegetables and nuts, including foods such as spinach, asparagus, avocados and nuts. It's also found naturally in beef liver, a nutrient-dense ingredient that can supply up to 54 percent of your daily folate needs.
Folic acid, on the other hand, is present in fortified products, which means it has been added to the final product to increase its nutritional content. Some of the top sources of folic acid include rice, bread, pasta, and cereals.
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