If you or someone close to you has been pregnant, you will remember the doctor’s insistence that folic acid is taken every day without fail. There is a good reason for that. Folic acid aids in the proper development of the human body and is essential in preventing miscarriages and reducing the risk of birth defects in babies. The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. In spina bifida, the spinal column of the unborn baby does not close completely. In anencephaly, most of the brain and skull do not develop. The loss of function and nerve damage that occur at birth because of neural tube defects are permanent and there is no cure for neural tube defects.
Folic acid is not just for women who are pregnant or looking to get pregnant. Since folic acid helps our body produce and maintain new cells, it is found to be beneficial in many other conditions including nerve pain in diabetes, heart disease, dementia, etc. Its deficiency can also lead to certain types of anemia (lack of red blood cells). The importance of folic acid cannot be emphasized enough. While the average adult needs 400 mcg of dietary folate equivalents per day, pregnant women need 400 to 800 mcg per day. A higher dose is needed for women who are at higher risk of having a child with birth defects. Only a doctor can assess these risks and recommend the right dose of folic acid. Preconception doctor visits and prenatal care will also help ensure the birth of a healthy baby while minimizing risk to the mother. Folic acid is also added to some contraceptive pills to ensure adequate baseline folate levels in the event of an unplanned pregnancy from inconsistent or incorrect contraceptive use.
Symptoms for deficiency are often too subtle and can go unnoticed. These could be fatigue, gray hair, mouth sores, swelling of the tongue and growth problems. If the deficiency has led to anemia, you could also feel persistent fatigue, pale skin, weakness, and irritability.
Folic acid is vitamin B9 and is also called folacin, folate or pteroylglutamic acid. It is important to mention here that folate and folic acid are different forms of vitamin B9. Despite a distinct difference between the two, their names are often used interchangeably. While folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9, folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9, also known as pteroylmonoglutamic acid. Since folic acid is a synthetic form of vitamin B9, the body may not convert it into active vitamin B9 efficiently, so unmetabolized folic acid may build up in your bloodstream, leading to unhealthy consequences.
Folic acid fortified foods may or may not be adequate to prevent birth defects without a vitamin supplement. It is best to look towards natural sources to fulfill folate requirements. Nature gives us plenty of food choices that are high in folate such as okra, asparagus, bananas, spinach, melons, lemons, broccoli, lettuce, and other leafy greens. Apart from these, kitchen staples such as beans, yeast, mushrooms, meat, orange juice, and tomato juice can help up your folate intake. However, research suggests that most people do not eat enough naturally folate-rich foods to meet their needs. Recognizing the importance of folic acid, many developed nations now add folic acid to refined grain products, such as white flour, bread, and cereals. In the U.S this has increased folate consumption by 28% and folate deficiency has dropped significantly from 39% to less than 4% of the population.
Folate is a water-soluble vitamin, which means that it cannot be stored in the fat cells in our bodies. Since the body is unable to develop a reserve, one needs to keep taking folate or else even a few week’s deficiency can manifest itself in symptoms.
Ensure your diet is rich in folate and you will never have to deal with the debilitating consequences of its deficiency.