Folic acid is a derived form of vitamin B9 linked to cell reproduction by contributing to DNA formation and repair. A deficiency in folic acid during pregnancy is commonly linked to birth defects such as spina bifida and other spinal and brain malformations in newborns. Folate, the naturally occurring form of the B vitamin, is found in dark green leafy vegetables but supplements containing, as well as food fortified with, folic acid are also available.
What Is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is a form of the B complex vitamin, B9. Folic acid may also be referred to as folate. Folate is the naturally occurring form of the vitamin, commonly found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Folic acid is a man-made variety of the same vitamin but which is more easily absorbed and used by the body. Folic acid or folate is an essential nutrient, particularly in early pregnancy. It helps in the proper development of cells in the body, especially the red blood cells. Folic acid is also used by the body for producing neurotransmitters that send messages around the brain and body. Folic acid is important to cell reproduction in developing fetus during pregnancy. It also functions as a helper molecule for proper synthesis and repair of DNA.
Folic acid and folate get their name from the Latin word for leaf, folium. This is because the element was initially found in dark green leafy vegetables. The scientific name for folic acid is pteroylglutamic acid. Folic acid and/or folate may also be referred to by several other names including pteroylglutamate, pteroylmonoglutamic acid, vitamin B9, vitamin M and vitamin Bc also known as folacin.
Food and other sources
Folate, the naturally occurring variety, was first identified by scientist in the leaves of dark green vegetables. The element was given the name folate, the Latin for leaf or foliage, representing the source from which it was originally taken. Folate is also present in reasonable quantities in other natural forms such as citrus fruits. There is a small amount of folate in other plant sources such legumes – including beans, peas and lentils, broccoli, sunflower seeds. Since folate is water-soluble, it is easily lost during the cooking process. Steaming, as opposed to boiling, helps preserve most of the vitamin intact for consumption during food preparation. Animal sources of folate are eggs – specifically the yolk, and liver which contains high amounts of folate.
Although this B complex vitamin is found readily in these plant and animal sources supplements are manufactured to produce folic acid. These are available in the form of tablets or powder. Folic acid is also added to other multivitamin supplements. Folic acid is being added to multigrain cereals, breads and flour to ensure its regular consumption in the diet for not only pregnant women, but also other adults and children.
It is recommended that all women consume folate during the early stages of pregnancy. This vitamin is most essential during these months when the cells of the fetus are reproducing rapidly. It is also important during breasfeeding and for growing children. Folate should also be consumed by other adults – males and nonpregnant women – and children. A well-balanced diet is usually sufficient to achieve the recommended daily allowance of folic acid.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women should consume between 300 and 600 micrograms, women preparing for pregnancy between 200 and 400 micrograms, and other adults and children between 200 and 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. Folic acid should be taken in conjunction with vitamin B12. Adults over 50 are discouraged from consuming more than 200 micrograms of folic acid daily due to potential ill effects, especially in the absence of vitamin B12.
Benefits Of Folic Acid
The body uses folic acid, in addition to vitamin B12, in the production of red blood cells. Folic acid deficiency therefore contributes to macrocytic anemia, a condition in which the red blood cells become enlarged resulting in a reduction in their ability to transmit oxygen to the cells.
Folic acid is extremely important in the healthy formation of the fetus during pregnancy and helps reduce the likelihood of babies being born with defects of the brain and spine. Folic acid deficiency in expecting mothers has been linked to babies with underdeveloped brains, neural tube defects, anencephaly and the newborn’s spine not closing, a condition known as spina bifida or “open spine”.
Folates are needed in the formation of purines and pyrimidines. These organic compounds are the essential building blocks of DNA. Folates are used by the cells to form and repair DNA. Proper DNA formation ensures that all cells in the body are able to reproduce normally. Folate deficiency may lead to abnormal cell reproduction resulting in complications in brain development with some babies being born with autism.
Other benefits of folic acid include a reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. It may also help to reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, high blood pressure and heart disease.