In order for the body to make new cells, it needs folate, a water soluble B vitamin. In nature, it is found in great abundance in food products like beans, fruits as well as green leafy vegetables. Folate is essential in the processing of vitamin B12, a water soluble vitamin that is essential in regulating brain functions, nervous system functions as well as the production of blood. Vitamin B12 is also involved in the synthesis and regulation of our DNA as well as the synthesis of fatty acids and production of energy.
Folate is also instrumental in preventing neural-tube birth defects (NTDs) like spina bifida, a condition wherein the spinal cord of a newborn is not fully developed. This is why you see a lot of advertisements and hear a lot about folic acid being a necessary supplement for pregnant women or women who are planning to get pregnant.
Folic acid is the supplement form of the naturally occurring folate. It benefits pregnant women by completing the development of a baby’s spine, preventing brain and nerve defects. If there is not enough folic acid supplemented by the mother, the baby’s neural tube may not close as it should at the top, resulting in a condition called anencephaly wherein the baby is born without a brain. Babies with this condition die soon after birth. On the other hand, not enough folic acid can also cause the paralyzing condition spina bifida wherein the lower end of the neural tube does not close properly.
Folic acid is not only beneficial to child-bearing women, it can benefit any adult as well. Folic acid has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart diseases and stroke by lowering the levels of homocysteine (an amino acid, high levels of which is associated with cardiovascular diseases) in the blood. Likewise, by preventing DNA damage, folic acid has been shown to also help in preventing colorectal and cervical cancers.
How much folic acid is good for healthy living? Childbearing women or women who are planning to get pregnant should take 800 mcg a day, while the rest should take 400 mcg a day. Pregnancy is not always planned and proper folic acid levels should be present during conception, so even though a woman is not planning on getting pregnant she should get adequate amounts of folic acid.
Folic acid however, can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. Deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause serious and irreversible nerve damage, which is why pregnant women will usually be advised to take a vitamin B12 supplement alongside their folic acid supplement. Elderly people are not advised to go on folic acid supplement to avoid this deficiency, as they will probably already get all the folic acid they need from their diet.