Folic Acid is a compound of Folate, an essential B Vitamin (B9) which directs multiple metabolic processes related to cell growth, division, and the generation of neurotransmitters. Folic acid is essential during early pregnancy as it is required to reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine. It is also important for infants and adolescents for the proper development of their body parts. Folate deficiency is usually associated with a nutrient-deficient diet. Naturally, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are great sources of folate. Synthetically folate is added to diets via supplements and fortified foods in the form of folic acid, which is a more stable folate version.
The recommended intake of Folate
Our bodies cannot store folate in large amounts. In fact, any excess folate is secreted out through the skin, urine, or bile route within hours. Hence, there is a need to consume folate-rich foods on a daily basis, making it available for vital body functions.
Naturally occurring folates should always be preferred over synthetic folic acid supplements as they are the body’s own forms, hence have no side-effects. The requirement of folic acid is different for different age groups due to variations in the metabolic rates and ideal body masses.
- 0 to 6 months: 65 mcg – extrapolated from the adults based on the metabolic weight
- 7 to 12 months: 80 mcg
- 1 to 3 years: 150 mcg
- 4 to 8 years: 200 mcg
- 9 to 13 years: 300 mcg
- over 14 years: 400 mcg
- during pregnancy: 600 mcg – for the growth of the fetus and to prevent any birth defects
- during lactation: 500 mcg – to maintain the levels due to secretion of folate in the breast milk
Folate is essential for Health and Body Functions
Folate is water-soluble B Vitamin. It helps in the formation of blood cells, changes carbohydrates into energy, and makes genetic material. Folate is also needed for the body’s cell division and growth. Some of the important body functions that are directed by Folate are:
- Protein metabolism by utilization of amino acids
- Generation of nucleic acids DNA and RNA that carry the body’s genes
- Production of red and white blood cells in the bone marrow
- Cell division and growth at different life stages – pregnancy, fetus, adolescents, and for children
- Direct vital metabolic processes such as methylation
- Absorption and functioning of Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12
- Utilization of plasma homocysteine, hence preventing cardiovascular disorders
Folic Acid for Pregnancy, Infants, and Adolescents
Folate requirements increase during pregnancy to enhance the rapid growth of the fetus and to help in developing the neural tube to the brain and spinal cord of the growing baby. Hence, it is highly recommended to increase the intake of folate-rich foods and supplement (if needed) with folic acid at least during the first trimester and also one month before the conception.
Folic acid supplementation during pregnancy can also help avoid premature births and prevent certain congenital heart diseases. Additionally, folic acid is needed during lactation breastfeeding to supplement the folate that has been secreted via the breastmilk.
Folic acid supplements play an important role in providing enough folate immediately to the needy people, who can get these from the foods in the long run. However, folate-rich foods are necessary, because whole foods supply plenty of other nutrients that promote health and absorption of the folate in the body.
Health Problems and Causes of Folate Deficiency
Folate deficiency usually occurs due to substandard diet, but may also be caused by malabsorption of the vitamin in the intestine. A nutrient deficient diet, excessive consumption of alcohol, and certain health conditions such as the Celiac disease (that prevents nutrient absorption in the small intestine) can lead to folate deficiency.
Folate Deficiency can manifest itself into multiple health issues:
- Reduces the cell division in the gut lining, hence thinning it and exposing it to parasites. This further increases susceptibility to stomach infections, digestive disorders, and leaky gut in the long term.
- A decrease in blood coagulation hence delayed healing of wounds, cuts, and hurts.
- Secondary malabsorption of several other nutrients generated in metabolic processes.
- Severely affects the absorption of vitamin B12 due to Pernicious Anaemia, an autoimmune disorder affecting the stomach and production of healthy red blood cells. This causes multiple other symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, headache, palpitations, and shortness of breath.
- Elevation of blood plasma homocysteine, which has been associated with cardiovascular diseases.
- Chronic deficiency can affect the methylation process in the body and lead to neuropathy (damage to peripheral nerves).
- Depression, Anxiety, and Alzheimer’s in some cases
How to introduce Folate in your diet?
Folate is naturally found in many foods, such as green vegetables, legumes, cereals, eggs, and fruit. On the shelf, it is available in the form of folic acid tablets and or folic acid fortified foods. Naturally, occurring folate is usually estimated to be only 50% bioavailable due to its unstable nature and also due to its loss in the digestive tract. Synthetic folic acid supplements have nearly 100% bioavailability and fortified foods have been estimated to be at around 85% bioavailability.
Folate is naturally present in
There are plenty of foods that can help you to get adequate folate from your meals. We regularly publish recipes with these foods and suggest meal preparations. Do check them out in the recipe section.
- Fermented foods such as yogurt, cheese, buttermilk, pickles, fermented vegetables such as kimchi, bamboo shoots, and fermented cereal-based foods such as dosa.
- Sprouted or germinated cereals or legumes.
- Green leafy vegetables specifically asparagus, okra (ladies finger), dark green leafy vegetables such as moringa oliefera, spinach, amaranth, fenugreek, mustard leaves, leeks, radishes, and brussels sprouts. Usually, a diet with more than 3 servings per day of greens ensures good folate through food.
- Beans and lentils such as mung beans, moth beans, chickpea, pigeon peas.
- Fruits such as oranges, lemons, bananas, melons, strawberries, and fruit juices are counted in moderate to low sources of folate.
- Brewer’s Dried Yeast
- Liver from duck, turkey, and goose
- Herbs such as Basil, Coriander, Tarragon, Sage, and Thyme.
- Nuta and Seeds such as sunflower seeds, peanuts,
Foods to which folic acid is added
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified corn masa flour (used to make corn tortillas and tamales, for example)
- Enriched flour, cornmeal, bread, pasta, and rice
- Milk and juices
Risks associated with high levels of Folic Acid
Synthetic folic acid supplements have much higher bioavailability than the naturally occurring folates, hence they are prescribed during pregnancy, conception, and lactation phases to supplement additional nutritional needs. It is recommended to take folic acid supplements along with Vitamin B12 for better absorption of folates. Additionally, the bioavailability of folic acid is close to 100% when it is taken on an empty stomach.
High levels of folic acid supplement (close to or more than 1000 mcg per day) can leave a major portion of the supplement unmetabolized. It has been observed that unmetabolized folic acid leads to seizures, to the growth of certain cancers such as colorectal cancer, and promoted depression in healthy people. Also, large doses of folic acid supplementation hide Vitamin B12 deficiency, leading to nerve damage getting undetected.
However, dietary levels of naturally occurring folate have not been associated with any bad effects.