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The Importance and Health Benefits of Folic Acid

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

You have probably had folic acid in your body this week or even right before reading this article, as it can be found in various everyday foods. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is a natural source of vitamin B in your body.

You can find folic acid in the following foods:

  • cold cereals
  • flour
  • pasta
  • bread
  • bakery items
  • crackers
  • cookies

Foods that are naturally high in folate include:

  • leafy veggies
  • asparagus
  • okra
  • some fruits
  • yeast
  • beans
  • animal liver and kidney
  • orange juice
  • tomato juice
  • mushrooms

You can also take folic acid as a supplement, and they are often used along with other B vitamins.

In this article, we will dive deeper into folic acid and its benefits for health.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before changing your nutrition plan or adding any supplements to your regimen.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin. It is also known as folate, vitamin B9, and vitamin M. Folic acid helps the body make new cells and keeps the immune system healthy. It is also important for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive because it helps prevent birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine (neural tube defects). Folic acid helps our body produce and maintain new cells. It also prevents changes to DNA that can lead to cancer and other illnesses.

Folic acid is found naturally in leafy green vegetables, beans and peas, citrus fruits, potatoes, enriched grains, and cereals. Folic acid can also be added to some foods, such as flour. People may need to take folic acid supplements if they don’t get enough from foods in their diet.

Is Folate and Folic Acid the Same Thing?

This is actually a great question and something many people ask. Let’s look into things a little further.

Folate is a naturally occurring B vitamin that helps your body form red blood cells and can help fight anemia. It’s found in leafy green vegetables, beans, citrus fruits, and dried fruit.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which is used to fortify foods such as cereal and bread. In addition to its role in red blood cell formation, folic acid plays a vital role in brain development during pregnancy and infancy.

The difference between folate and folic acid is that they have different chemical structures. Folate occurs naturally in food, whereas folic acid is produced by adding a synthetic form of vitamin to foods or supplements.

The Benefits of Folic Acid

Here are some of the possible benefits of folic acid:

1.      Helps prevent neural tube defects in babies

The fortification of folic acid helps prevent neural tube irregularities in infants. Folic acid supplements can help to stop tube irregularities, including anencephaly and spina bifida. If you get enough folic acid during pregnancy, it reduces the chances of your baby being born with one of these conditions. Besides preventing fetal development issues, folic acid supplements also reduce the risk of pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia.

If you’re planning to get pregnant or already are pregnant, talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin containing 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day for at least one month before conception through the first trimester of pregnancy.

2.      Helps with mood disorders

Folic acid supplements may reduce depressive symptoms. Folate is needed in the brain to synthesize serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Taking folic acid supplements along with other antidepressants may improve symptoms in some people with depression.

According to a 2022 review of studies, it was shown that folic acid and folate supplements might help lower symptoms of mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, postpartum depression, and bipolar disorder.

3.      Promotes heart health

Folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering homocysteine levels, which are associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Folic acid can also reduce blood pressure and homocysteine levels in people with high cholesterol or diabetes.

A 2016 study found that people who used folic acid supplements were 10% less likely to experience stroke and 4% less likely to have any other kind of heart issue.

4.      Good for people with rheumatoid arthritis

In today’s time, doctors use folic acid supplements to support methotrexate prescriptions for rheumatoid arthritis.

Methotrexate is an important and effective medication for rheumatoid arthritis, but it may remove folate from the body, which leads to gastrointestinal symptoms.

Studies show that taking folic acid supplements could reduce these side effects by approximately 79%.

5.      Maintains brain health

As we grow old, we tend to have reduced brain capacity, and folic acid has been shown to improve mood and cognitive function, which means it has a positive impact on our brain health.

Enough folate intake may help protect against Alzheimer’s. According to a 2019 study involving 180 adults with mild cognitive impairment, taking 400 mcg of folic acid supplements per day for two years improved measures of brain function and lowered blood levels of proteins that may lead to Alzheimer’s.

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