Folic acid is part of the range of B vitamins, and is also called Vitamin B9. In 1931, researcher Lucy Wills identified folic acid as a nutrient, but only in 1941 was it extracted from spinach leaves. In 1946 it was synthesized for the first time. It is also called folium, from the Latin word that means “leaf”. Because the liver can only store small quantities of it, it’s important to make sure that you ingest enough. Natural sources of folic acid are green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, beans, peas, and it is also found in carrots, sugar beets, avocados, whole grains, corn, almonds, chestnuts, egg yolk and liver.
Folic acid helps the body produce new cells. When a woman has insufficient folic acid in her body before and during a pregnancy, it can cause birth defects, including neural tube defects. Experts recommend taking 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day when you are trying to get pregnant through the first 3 months of pregnancy. If you are thinking about getting pregnant in the near future, you should take a multivitamin that contains 400mcg of folic acid.
However, pregnant women are not the only ones who need folic acid. Folic acid can have other health benefits. It plays an important role in building and fortifying the red blood cells and it may help in preventing certain forms of anemia. An additional benefit of folic acid is that it seems to decrease the level of an amino acid that the body makes after eating meat, called homocysteine, which is associated with increased risk of strokes and heart disease.
The tetrahydrofolic acid, which is the active form of the folic acid in the body, acts as a coenzyme in many essential metabolic reactions. It also plays an important role in the metabolism of amino acids, the main constituents of proteins. It is essential for the production of the red blood cells by the bone marrow.
The absorption of folic acid is mainly made through the duodenum and the jejunum (part of the small intestine). Folic acid circulates through and is stored in the liver. It is estimated that the liver stores between 10 – 20 milligrams, so if you don’t get enough on one day, your body will be able to tide you over, until your natural stores run out.
- Prevents anemia in pregnant women: During pregnancy the cells multiply faster so the mother needs more folic acid. A pregnancy can drain the mother’s folic acid reserves proportional to the fetal growth. This can lead to maternal anemia and can cause problems in childbirth.
- Prevents birth defects: Lack of folic acid during pregnancy can cause spina bifida, anencephaly, neural tube and some heart defects. As the brain develops it creates an opening in the spinal cord that forms into the neural tube. During the third week of pregnancy, the neural tube should close. If this doesn’t occur, it causes neural tube defects.
- Ensures the correct replication of cells: Antioxidants are necessary for the continuous and error-free reproduction of DNA. They can neutralize the free radicals, which are the enemies of DNA. Free radicals help bring about the onset of aging. However, recent research shows that folic acid is at least as important in ensuring the proper DNA replication. Therefore it is not surprising that the lack of folic acid is associated with a wide range of diseases, from Alzheimer’s disease to atherosclerosis, heart attack, osteoporosis, cervical cancer and colon cancer, depression, dementia, and hearing loss.
- Assimilation of other vitamins: If the body does not receive enough folic acid the number of white blood cells decreases. A folic acid deficiency can also cause a lack of iron and vitamin B12 too. Symptomatic inflammation of the tongue may occur, or different stomach and bowel irregularities.
- Treatment or prevention of cervical cancer: Folic acid may help prevent cervical cancer (cervix uterine cancer). The cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells on the surface appearance of the cervix) can evolve into cervical cancer if untreated. Fortunately, it is easily detected by Pap test and can be effectively treated with folic acid or other treatments.
- May help prevent depression: Researchers studied young patients and adults with depression from moderate to severe. It was found that a third of them had low levels of folic acid. Whether this effect was causal or an after-effect of the depression requires further research.
Potential Side Effects
- Lack of zinc: In the case of women who take folic acid supplements, especially if using oral contraceptives, the risk of low serum zinc concentrations is high. Additional zinc supplements are recommended in order to prevent the low levels.
- Weight Gain, digestive problems, insomnia or skin irritations: These are all linked to excess folic acid.
- Cancer development: A 2011 study published in the journal Cancer Research found that high doses of folic acid, when given to rats doubled the rates of breast cancer than in the control group. Other studies have linked excess B9 to intestinal or prostate cancer.
Folic acid is recommended for pregnant women, as it prevents birth defects, especially spina bifida. If you are planning on getting pregnant, you should begin taking a folic acid supplement or a prenatal vitamin that includes folic acid (most do). If you are not pregnant or not planning to get pregnant, stick to the recommended dose of 400 mcg total per day from all sources, including vitamins and food. Because studies have linked excess folic acids to higher levels of certain forms of cancer, including intestinal, prostate and breast, high doses of the vitamin are not recommended if you are not pregnant or planning on getting pregnant. It should be noted that folic acid is absorbed better by the body as a supplement than from food sources.