Everything to Know About Folic Acid

Chances are, you’ve heard the words: folic acid. It’s primarily heard in conjunction with pregnancy, but did you know that everyone needs folic acid? It aids in cellular growth and is converted in vitamin B9 that fuels your body and treats certain ailments. Folic acid is the building block for cellular repair, helps prevent a number of birth defects, and plays an important role in the overall prevention of cancer and cellular mutations. While it’s a great vitamin for everyone to take, folic acid is especially important for women. It’s an essential nutrient for all women in their childbearing years, regardless of if you’re actively trying to get pregnant or not.

Folic acid becomes even more important for expecting mothers after conception, which is why we’ve put together an article explaining everything you need to know about folic acid.

What is Folic Acid?

Simply put, folic acid is an artificial form of folate, which is a type of vitamin B9.

It’s very important for cellular growth, as it helps create new red blood cells.

Folate is found naturally in certain foods, but folic acid is not—it is added to many supplements and fortified foods such as rice, pasta, bread, and even some breakfast cereals. Some people are skeptical about a vitamin that doesn’t appear in nature, but our bodies absorb synthetic folic acid more readily than naturally occurring folate.

Sometimes, depending on your diet, it’s difficult to get the recommended daily amount of folate from food. For this reason, supplements are usually recommended.

Once folic acid is taken, your body converts it into vitamin B9 using enzymes. Vitamin B9 is an essential vitamin that your body needs to function.

Benefits of Folic Acid

In addition to aiding in cellular growth, folic acid – once it’s converted into vitamin B9 – has a number of health benefits. It has been shown to help prevent the following:

Neural Tube Defects

Neural tube defects are very serious. They affect the spine, spinal cord, and/or brain and increase the risk of premature deaths. Neural tube defect disorders include spina bifida, anencephaly, and more. Taking folic acid daily greatly reduces the chances that your baby will be born with a neural tube defect.

For the best prevention, it’s recommended to take folic acid every day, even before you start trying to conceive. This will give your baby the best conditions for a healthy development, especially since neural tube defects are primarily developed before most women know they’re pregnant—around 3-4 weeks after conception.

Since a lot of pregnancies are unplanned and birth control isn’t always 100% effective, taking folic acid daily during your childbearing years is highly recommended.

Cancer

Folic acid has been associated with aiding in the protection against certain cancers including those of the breast, gut, lung, and pancreas. This is because folic acid helps control different gene expression and effectively “turns off” abnormal cell growth that leads to cancer. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, talk to your doctor about the impact of folic acid.

While there is more research that needs to be done on the long-term effects of folic acid and cancer development, taking the recommended dosage of folic acid is still advised by doctors.

Autism

While there still needs to be more research done to confirm the link between folic acid and autism, a few studies have shown it to be promising.

One of them concluded that taking folic acid before conception and throughout pregnancy could potentially reduce the risk of autism disorders in people with inefficient folate metabolism.

Homocysteine Levels

Taking folic acid reduces levels of homocysteine, which is an inflammatory molecule linked to heart disease. Inflammation in your body is always bad, so this is beneficial. However, folic acid has not been shown to have a direct reduction in the rates of heart disease across individuals.

Other Bodily Functions

Folic acid also plays an important role in the following:

  • Healthy skin, hair, and eyes
  • Proper functioning of the nervous system
  • Converting food into energy
  • Producing DNA and RNA
  • Improved brain functioning
  • And more.

How Much Folic Acid Should You Take

While folic acid is most frequently associated as a pregnancy supplement, the CDC recommends that all women of reproductive age take folic acid each day, even if they’re not actively trying to get pregnant.

The reason behind this is that folic acid helps make new cells, aids in the prevention of certain birth defects, and provides a number of benefits to both men and women.

So, how much folic acid should you take?

400 micrograms (mcg) every day, 600mcg if you’re pregnant. The only time you’d take a different dosage is if directed to do so by your doctor. Most cases, doctors will recommend a much higher dosage if you’ve had a family member with spina bifida or have had a baby with a neural tube defect and want to get pregnant again.

Taking too much folic acid overloads your system and leads to problems converting it into vitamin B9. The buildup of folic acid in the bloodstream has been linked to negative health outcomes, so it’s best to listen to your doctor’s recommendations and those set in place by the Food and Drug Administration

Foods with Folic Acid

Most times, if you see the words “fortified” or “enriched” on a package of food, it means that there has been folic acid added. Some common foods that folic acid is added to include:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Breads
  • Flour
  • White rice
  • White pasta
  • Cornmeal
  • Crackers
  • Protein Bars
  • Certain cakes and cookies

It’s also possible to get some folate from certain fruits and vegetables. Natural sources include:

  • Spinach
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Oranges
  • Nuts
  • Asparagus
  • Artichokes
  • Broccoli
  • Poultry
  • Meat
  • Okra
  • Edamame

If you eat a diet rich in foods that have naturally occurring folate, you will likely get enough of the recommended daily value. However, since diets change frequently and folate isn’t always absorbed completely, taking a folic acid supplement is still recommended, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant or already are.

Side Effects of Folic Acid

While the side effects of regular folic acid supplementation are very rare, they do exist. However, the most commonly reported problem has been an upset stomach. For a more thorough look at the side effects of folic acid, click here and talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

One thing that should be noted is that some people have a certain genetic mutation that reduces the effectiveness of converting folic acid into vitamin B9. The effects need to be more researched, but it has been linked to things like a lower immunity, reduced brain function, and even the increased growth of pre-existing cancers.1 Talk to your doctor to learn more and discuss any concerns.

Signs of Deficiency

If you’re taking folic acid regularly, the chances of having a deficiency are low. In fact, folic acid deficiency only affects roughly 4% of the U.S. population. Your chances of a deficiency increase when you smoke or drink in excess and if you have inflammatory bowel disease.

Common signs of folate deficiency include overall fatigue, gray hair, mouth sores, a swollen tongue, and growth problems.

If you’re worried about having a deficiency, keep an eye out for these signs and symptoms and talk to your doctor immediately if you’re trying to get pregnant or are already pregnant.

Most folic acid deficiencies result in anemia, which produces the following signs and symptoms:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Megaloblastic anemia
  • Elevated homocysteine levels
  • Shortness of breath

Since these symptoms are commonly caused by other factors or are difficult to measure at home, talk to your doctor about getting tested if you have any doubts.

Conclusion

Taking folic acid every day is important for your body and the healthy development of your baby. While you can try and get enough of the natural form, folate, it’s difficult to achieve through food alone. Taking 400mcg of folic acid daily for preconception health and 600mcg while pregnant is recommended. Talk to your doctor for more information, questions, and to make sure that you’re taking the right amount of folic acid for your body. When planning for your pregnancy, don’t forget that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, expectant mothers are eligible to receive an electric breast pump covered by their insurance provider! Visit Byram Healthcare today to browse all of the available selections and find other great pregnancy tips, info, and product reviews.

To share your pregnancy journey, or to discuss folic and other pregnancy supplements, head over to our Facebook page today and leave a comment!

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