The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges all women who are of reproductive age to get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. We always hear that pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant are advised to take folic acid. What’s the reason behind this? And why is it also advised for women who are not pregnant to take folic acid?
What is folic acid?
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is a type of Vitamin B that exists in our body. Folate, also known as Vitamin B9, supports the production of DNA, RNA, and other genetic material and is involved in protein metabolism. It is water-soluble and naturally found in many foods. It is also added to foods and sold in a supplement form which is folic acid.
Folic acid is actually better absorbed than folate from food sources – 85% vs. 50%, respectively. It helps in breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that if you have in excessive amounts could damage the lining of your arteries. High levels of this amino acid can lead to blood clots or blood vessel blockages and raise your risk of a heart attack. Furthermore, folate also helps in producing healthy red blood cells and is vital during periods of rapid growth, such as during pregnancy and fetal development.
Furthermore, folate also helps in producing healthy red blood cells and is vital during periods of rapid growth, such as during pregnancy and fetal development.
Importance of folic acid in our body
Let’s discuss first the importance of folic acid to pregnant women. Fifty years ago, no one could comprehend what caused neural tube defects in babies such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a condition where the bones on the vertebral column do not fully cover the spinal cord, leaving it exposed. While anencephaly is a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, and the remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin.
Since after fortifying grains with folic acid, CDC says that there has been a 28% decline in pregnancies affected by neural tube defects. It is essential that folate must be taken in the first few weeks after conception, usually before a woman knows she is pregnant, for this to be effective. This answers the question of why women who are not yet pregnant are advised to take folic acid. Also considering the fact that there are about half of U.S. pregnancies unplanned.
Folic acid also plays a big role not just for pregnant women but also in our overall health. There are lower risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and hypertension among people with higher intakes of folate. This is connected with the B vitamins’ function of breaking down homocysteine. Several studies also found an association between high homocysteine levels and increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease wherein it causes a lack of blood to the brain and nerve cells.
Folic acid is also used for various conditions such as depression, the decline in memory and thinking skills, and many others. Taking folic acid supplements could make depression medications more effective. This is also used to support a methotrexate prescription for rheumatoid arthritis. It could reduce the side effect of folate removal from the body, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.
Folate, in high doses of folic acid, is believed to have the capacity to suppress some early types of cancer and progressing established cancers.
Having insufficient folate is unlikely to happen because it is found in a wide range of foods but there are conditions that contribute to this. People with alcoholism make it hard for their bodies to absorb folate which is the effect of too much alcohol in our system. Pregnant women have an increased need for folate as it plays a role in the development of cells in the fetus.
People that underwent intestinal surgeries or have digestive disorders that cause malabsorption also decrease the absorption of folate. Some people who lack folate may also experience weakness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating, hair loss, pale skin, or mouth sores.
Some people have a polymorphism in the MTHFR gene which contains a mutation that reduces how effectively the body converts folic acid into its active form making it difficult for the body to make full use of this nutrient.
How to get enough folic acid
Since folic acid added to foods and supplements is better absorbed than folate from foods, in January 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had a program requiring food manufacturers to add folic acid too frequently eaten foods, like slices of bread, flour, bakery items, cereals, pasta, rice, and other grain products.
Here are the foods that are good sources of folate:
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, broccoli
- Sunflower seeds
- Fresh fruits, fruit juices
- Hard-boiled egg
- Tomato juice
- Whole grains
- Animal liver and kidney
- Fortified foods and supplements
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, Vitamin B9, and also the easiest to absorb through supplements. The majority of people could get enough folate from their diet but people at risk of folate deficiency, pregnant women, and women capable of being pregnant may need extra help getting enough folate. So taking folic acid supplements would be beneficial.
Let your doctor know what other prescriptions and medications you take because folic acid may have an effect on some medicines.