Folic Acid: Background, Side Effects, and 4 Health Benefits

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Background: Folic acid and folate are types of the water-soluble vitamins from the B complex. Folate naturally occurs in food. The synthetic form of folate, which is found in fortified foods and nutritional supplements, is called folic acid.

Seventy years ago, a researcher named Dr. Lucy Wills identified folate as an essential nutrient necessary for preventing anemia of pregnancy.

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Folate plays an important role in the production and preservation of new cells. Folate is needed especially when cell growth and division happens rapidly such as in pregnancy and infancy.

Folate is also necessary for the production of the building blocks of cells – DNA and RNA. It aids in the prevention of DNA changes, which usually leads to cancer.

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Since folic acid plays a role in the maintenance of the nervous system and DNA synthesis, it has been associated with the healthy growth of the fetus throughout pregnancy. According to medical studies, the results have shown a beneficial effect of taking adequate amounts of folic acid in reducing the risks of the spinal cord and brain birth defects.

Both children and adults need sufficient amounts of folate to normalize red blood cells and avoid anemia.

In fact, since 1998, the U.S. food manufacturers have been required to include folic acid in enriched cereals, breads, rice, corn meals, flours, pastas and other grain products. This requirement was purposely targeted to decrease the risks of birth defects in infants.

Folate deficiencies occur when the body consumes inadequate amounts of folate, when the body loses unusual amounts of folate and when the body’s folate needs increase.

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When you are currently being medicated for other health conditions, the need for folate could also increase. Some conditions that would increase the need for this vitamin include alcohol abuse, liver disease, malabsorption, pregnancy, lactation and certain anemia disorders.

Folate deficiencies are often mild. Its symptoms include loss of appetite, diarrhea, headaches, sore tongue, weakness, irritability, behavioral disorders, heart palpitations and weight loss. Pregnant women that are folic acid deficient are more prone to produce premature babies with low birth weight. Adults with anemia are known to have an advanced stage of folic acid deficiency.

Although some vitamins are obtained better from dietary sources, folic acid appears to be different since it is easily destroyed by storage and cooking. In addition, the body cannot store folate for prolonged periods. Hence, individuals are required to take in adequate amounts daily. For this reason, many experts suggest supplementation of folate.

Suggested Treatments for Folate:

  • Prevents neural tube birth defects
  • Promotes a healthy heart
  • Reduces plasma homocysteine levels
  • Prevents atherosclerosis
  • Protects the body from cardiovascular disease
  • Promotes healthy skin
  • Protects against intestinal parasites
  • Prevents spina bifida
  • Helps in alleviating depression

Health Benefits of Folic Acid

Folic acid supplements may be beneficial to the prevention or treatment of various health conditions such as:

1. Birth defects and genetics

The most dramatic benefit of folate is its ability to decrease the development of NTDs (neural tube birth defects). If a pregnant woman is consuming a daily folic acid intake of 400mcg, the chances of her newborn to have anencephaly or spina bifida are reduced up to 70 percent.

A medical study conducted at California Birth Defects Monitoring Program reported that pregnant women could reduce the risks of giving birth to infants with orofacial clefts (palate or cleft lip) simple by adding or increasing folic acid intake, particularly before and after conception.

2. Heart and Cardiovascular disease

Various studies suggest that folic acid could reduce the risks of cardiovascular and heart disease. The benefit of appropriate folic acid levels in the body is that it is considered as a strong factor in reducing levels of the amino acid homocysteine.

Elevated levels of homocysteine are known as a health risk factor for conditions such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It also increases the risks of newborn babies with NTDs (neural tube defects).

Since the body’s homocysteine levels are connected to its FA levels, getting sufficient amounts of folic acid brings down the levels of homocysteine all by itself and in turn, reduces the risks of various health conditions.

3. Cancer

A study dedicated to cancer research has discovered that folate is effective in the prevention of breast cancer. Involving 2,700 women aging in between 25 to 64 years old, this study observed that the group of women who had daily folic acid intake of 345 mcg had a 38% lower risk of cancer than those who took less than 190 mcg daily.

According to this particular study, the group of participants who took folic acid alongside methionine, vitamins B6 and B12 had more pronounced effects.

Other studies involving cancer specifically observed folic acid in relations to pancreatic and colon cancer. Various long-term studies have shown that supplementation and dietary intake of folic acid could reduce the risks of these cancers.

4. Depression

Folic acid deficiency has been observed in roughly 15 to 40 percent of adults wo are suffering from mild to severe depression. Medical evidence suggest that folate supplementation, in therapeutic amounts, could improve the state of depressed individuals.

Possible Side Effects

Folate supplementation has no documented cases of side effects in dosages of up to 1000 mg per day. However, there have been reports of irritability, an abnormal increase in activity level and sleep problems when folic acid was given to normal individuals.

As well, giving folate supplements to children recovering from gastroenteritis may cause loose stools and diarrhea.

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Folic acid is a part of the B complex that is an important body requirement. Folate plays a major role in the development of DNA and RNA, the maintenance of the nervous system and red blood cell formation.

It has been discovered to provide therapeutic benefits to individuals with cardiovascular and heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and cancers such as prostate, colon and breast.

Although supplementation of folic acid could provide significant benefits, it could also be harmful to individuals suffering from epilepsy.

To ensure safety from folate supplementation, it is best to consult with your doctor about your condition and proper doses of folic acid.

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