What does almost every article about being healthy have in common?
Most of these articles will inform you to religiously eat your greens. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach hold the key to longevity and vitality.
One of the reasons for this is that these veggies are high in folic acid. So what makes folic acid so great?
What is folic acid?
Folate is one of the B-vitamins, vitamin B9 to be specific. It occurs naturally in certain types of food, such as the greens mentioned above.
When folate is synthetically produced and added to certain foods, or sold as a supplement, it is called folic acid. The availability of folic acid allows us to treat folate deficiency.
|There are fewer B vitamins than you think|
With folate being vitamin B9, and the fact that there is a vitamin B12, you can’t be blamed for thinking that there are quite a few B vitamins. Or at least 12, right?
Actually, there are only eight. They are vitamin B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamin).
Are you at risk of folate deficiency?
It is not a common occurrence because folate is found in many types of food, but there are conditions that put you at risk of folate deficiency:
- Excessive consumption of alcohol. Alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate, and causes the little bit you do absorb to break down and leave the body too quickly.
Alcoholics also tend to have unhealthy eating habits, depriving themselves of important nutrients.
- Folate plays a role in the development of new cells in a foetus. Therefore, women need higher doses of folate when they fall pregnant.
- Celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease can cause malabsorption of folate.
- Surgery that involves your digestive organs or that reduce your levels of stomach acid may interfere with the absorption of folate.
- Certain genetic factors prevent folate being converted into a form that the body can use.
Symptoms of folate deficiency include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hair loss
- Pale skin
- Mouth sores
What is folic acid good for?
Your body would not be able to function properly without folate/folic acid. Here are some of the benefits this nutrient brings you:
- It helps the body make new red blood cells. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body.
- Sufficient folate in your diet may reduce your risk of getting squamous cell carcinoma (the second most common type of skin cancer) of the head and neck.
Folate also plays a role in protecting you from mouth, throat, esophageal and pancreatic cancer.
- Folate can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Some studies have shown a link between insufficient folate in the blood and higher risk of dementia. More research is needed though to confirm that folic acid can help prevent cognitive decline.
Why folic acid should be part of your pregnancy
Folic acid is vital for the health of mom and the development of baby. When you are pregnant, your diet might not provide you with enough of this important nutrient.
For mom, folic acid supplements can reduce the risk of suffering pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia or preterm birth.
As folic acid is responsible for cell division and tissue growth, it goes without saying that it’s a huge requirement for normal foetal development.
Furthermore, it helps with the development of the baby’s brain and spine (also called the neural tube). Sufficient folic acid intake can help prevent neural tube problems such as anencephaly and spina bifida.
Anencephaly is a serious and frightening birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull. The baby is often born without the front part of the brain and the thinking and coordinating part of the brain.
The remaining parts of the brain are often not covered by bone or skin. There is no cure or treatment, and these babies do not live very long after being born.
Spina bifida is an equally disturbing birth defect. This is when a baby’s spine and spinal cord does not develop properly, causing a gap in the spine.
This gap can be closed with surgery, but by then nervous system damage has already occurred.
This causes weakness of the legs or total paralysis, bowel and urinary incontinence and loss of skin sensation which could lead to a child accidentally injuring himself.
A build-up of fluid on the brain is seen in some babies, and causes damage to the brain. Some people with spina bifida have learning difficulties.
All mothers want their babies to be healthy, but it isn’t as simple as just starting to take folic acid supplements when you find out you are pregnant.
For your supplements to be most effective, they must be taken in the first few weeks after conception. This is typically before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
For this reason, it is recommended that all women of childbearing age take folic acid supplements. This ensures the health of unplanned babies as well. This is, however, difficult to enforce.
The American Food and Drug Administration attempted to reduce folate-related birth defects by requiring that folic acid be added to certain breads, flour, cornmeal, pasta, rice and other grains.
Since this was done in 1998, neural tube birth defects have dropped by 28%.
|Foods that contain folateFolate occurs naturally in the following types of food: Peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, spinach, kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, eggs, beetroot and lentils.|
Can you take too much folic acid?
The recommended daily allowance for folate (from food) and folic acid (from supplements) put together is 400 micrograms for adults. This increases to 600 micrograms for pregnant women.
It is highly unlikely that you will consume too much of this nutrient if you are only getting it from your food. However, taking dosages from 1000 micrograms and upwards can cause some problems.
High doses of folic acid can give you nausea, bloating, gas and insomnia. Too high doses of folic acid can also block the effect of some seizure medications.
A more serious risk is that taking too much folic acid can mask the neurologic symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, which could be dangerous.
Folate and vitamin B12 are both involved in making red blood cells, and a shortage of either can lead to anaemia. Now, if there is a B12 deficiency and the person takes folic acid, the anaemia could get better.
This means that the B12 deficiency is still there, but not the symptoms. It is hidden. The untreated B12 deficiency could cause slow, but irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.
The benefits of folic acid certainly outweigh the risks, especially for moms-to-be. Sticking to a healthy diet should be enough to keep your folate levels normal.
If you have some of the risk factors and think you might need supplements, play it safe and chat to your GP.