Updated: May 17, 2019
Folic acid is one of those vitamins that you hear about when you are pregnant, or thinking of trying - how it is needed to prevent neural tube defects. But what about the rest of us who aren't having children? Is it important, too?
First of all, know that when we're talking about Folic Acid (vitamin B9), we're talking about the more stable form of the vitamin, used in vitamin supplements and fortified foods. Folate is the form of the vitamin that forms naturally in foods. When you take folic acid, your body converts it back to folate to use it! There are other active forms like 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) (also the most biologically active form of the vitamin), calcium foliate or folonic acid (but they are not interchangeable). Neat, eh?
Folic acid deficiency is actually thought to be one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the world all due to food choices: animal foods (with the exception of liver), are a poor source of folic acid, while plant foods which are rich sources are not frequently consumed. In fact, Folate gets it's name from the Latin word folium, meaning "leaf". Vegetarians consume approximately 25-50% more folate from whole foods that non-vegetarians (unless they are consuming an abundance of fortified foods - and if something needs to be fortified to make it healthier, we probably shouldn't be eating it! In addition, alcohol, many prescription drugs (estrogens, sulfasalazine, barbiturates) impair folic acid metabolism. Folic acid is also extremely sensitive to and easily destroyed by light or heat. It is also a water soluble vitamin, meaning it isn't stored in the body and is only good for a short period of time. Your body takes what it needs at the moment into the cells and tissues, and then you pee the rest out.
Yes, but what does it do?
Folic acid functions together with vitamin B12 in many body processes and is critical to cellular division because it is necessary in DNA synthesis. Folate supports the metabolism of amino acids and the enzymes that are necessary for building cells and genetic material. Without folic acid, cells do not divide properly, and your body cannot make healthy red blood cells.
Folic acid also works with B6, B12 and betaine to reduce body concentrations of homocysteine - high homocysteine has been implicated in a variety of conditions including atherosclerosis (heart disease) and osteoporosis. Homicystein is thought to promote atherosclerosis by directly damaging the arteries as well as reducing the integrity of vessel walls. In osteoporosis, elevated homocysteine levels lead to a defective bone matrix by interfering with the proper formation of collagen, the main protein in bone. High homocysteine has been studied and found to also increase a person's risk for cancer, including cervical and uterine cancer! A simple test for homocysteine will help determine if your folate levels are normal.
Folate also plays a role in a basic detoxification reaction known as methylation (when we methylate a compound, we help deactivate it and clear it from the body). DNA methylation helps to slow down the vigorous and dangerous activity of about 1700 cancer promoting genes! However, some people are not able to us folate efficiently due to a genetic defect, so they may need additional amounts of folate/folic acid. Elevated homocysteine levels mean you have trouble with methylation reactions, and therefore have more damage to DNA and thus a higher risk of cancer.
In the case of folic acid deficiency, all cells of the body are affected, but it is the rapidly dividing cells (such as red blood cells and cells of the gastrointestinal and genital tracts) that are affected the most. Folic acid deficiency can show up as:
- poor growth
- pale skin
- sleeping difficulties
- megaloblastic anemia (red blood cells become larger or uneven in size)
- run out of energy
- those last few sound like many elderly folks, doesn't it? A deficiency could account for those "seniors moments"
- many aspects of the immune system are affected by a deficiency in folic acid, including the ability to recognize invading microbes and the number and stretch of our white blood cells. When deficient in folic acid, we may be less resistant to disease
- even abnormal pap smears!!! Before you get treatment, look into folate deficiencies!!
Certain medications also increase your chances of being deficient - Avandia (rosiglitazone) and Actos - popular diabetes drugs, actually rob your body of folate and B12 and CoQ10. Acid blockers, analgesics, antacids, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatory drugs, antimetabolites, antivirals, barbiturates, blood pressure drugs, cholesterol agents, corticosteroids, diabetes meds, hormone replacement therapy, oral contraceptives, muscle relaxants, salicylates, selective estrogen receptor modulators, SSRI antidepressants, and sulphonamides - all can rob your body of the folate that it desperately needs! If you are on oral contraceptives, which are known to deplete folate, it is super vital to re-store your bodies own stores of folate before attempting to get pregnant! Even if you are not trying, if you are of child bearing age where pregnancy can occur, you should be making sure you are getting sufficient folate through supplementation in a multi-vitamin (again, vitamins work synergistically, which is especially true of the B vitamins!)
Folic acid is found in many types of foods. The best natural sources are beef/lamb/pork and chicken liver, deep green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, beet greens, turnip greens, mustard greens), asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, lentils, walnuts, pinto beans, black beans, chickpeas, summer squash, cucumbers, papaya, strawberries, flaxseed, whole wheat (68 percent of the folic acid is whole wheat is removed when the grain is processed into white flour) and brewers yeast.
Cooking and processing can reduce folate content by 50-90 percent!
Note that the anticancer effects of folate backfire when you take too much, and may even propel the growth of cancer. High dosing with one vitamin, may also throw the rest of your vitamin B levels off kilter, especially B12 - everything works together, so NEVER supplement willy-nilly! Diagnostic testing must be used to distinguish folic acid anemia from B12 anemia. If B12 is given to someone already deficient in folic acid, severe folic acid deficiency will develop.
Folic acid, folate, methyltetrahydrofolate - what ever you want to call it, is a vital vitamin to help you remain in tip-top shape! If you need a game plan on how to make sure you're optimizing your whole food vitamin intake, or are looking for a supplement regime catered to you as an individual, check out the services I have available!
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