All cells in the body need folic acid to synthetize and repair DNA (desoxyribonucleic acid). Without the ability to generate new DNA, the body could not produce new cells, and could not grow during development or recover from a wound.
If cells cannot repair damaged DNA, the body becomes susceptible to health conditions. Thus, folic acid is essential for the body's normal functioning.
Folic acid benefits also include prevention of pregnancy complications, reduction in the risk for stroke, and decrease of high homocysteine levels.
What is Folic acid?
Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body produce and maintain cells. B vitamins are water-soluble compounds that cannot be synthesized by the body. Thus, folic acid and its second form, folate, must be obtained from one's diet.
Folic acid refers to the synthetic form of the vitamin. U.S. federal law has mandated since 1998 the addition of folic acid to fortified foods such as bread, crackers, pasta, flour, cookies, and cold cereals. Folate, on the other hand, is the naturally-occurring form of folic acid.
Folate is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, bananas, mushrooms, okra, and asparagus. The chemical structure of folate is virtually identical to that of folic acid. However, the sole difference is that the structure of folate is deprotonated, or has a hydrogen atom removed.
This difference between folate and folic acid does not affect folate's effectiveness. The two terms are used interchangeably to reflect the fact that the body uses and metabolizes both folic acid and folate in the same way.
Folic acid health benefits
- reduces homocysteine levels
- reduces high blood pressure and risk of stroke
- treats folate deficiency
- prevents neural tube defects
Folic acid and cardiovascular health
Folic acid supplements have been shown to reduce the level of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine is a molecule with a similar structure to cysteine, an amino acid found in enzymes and proteins.
However, homocysteine is not used in the body's proteins, and a high level of homocysteine in the blood is associated with increased risk of heart disease. Folic acid may or may not improve the outcomes of cardiovascular disease through homocysteine modulation.
Research has shown that folic acid supplements can reduce the levels of homocysteine in the blood by 20 to 30% in individuals with normal to slightly elevated levels of homocysteine.
Folic acid and stroke
Folic acid benefits may include protection against a possible heart attack or stroke.
In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers studied more than 20,000 adults in China with high blood pressure.
- In China, unlike the United States, food is not fortified with folic acid.
- Participants were assigned into two groups: one group took a pill that contained both folic acid and a high blood pressure medication, while another group took a pill containing only a high blood pressure medication.
- The median length of treatment for the participants was 4.5 years.
- The study found that 2.7 percent of participants experienced a first stroke when taking both folic acid and high blood pressure medication, while first strokes occurred in 3.4 percent of participants taking only the medication.
Thus, the study suggests that supplementation with folic acid, when used in conjunction with high blood pressure medication, can help decrease the risk of a stroke.
Folic acid and fertility
Folic acid may help increase fertility in women. In 2006, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported findings of a study involving 18,500 women hoping to get pregnant over an eight-year period.
The study found that women taking a daily multivitamin containing folic acid for six or more days a week were forty percent less likely to experience ovulatory failure than women who did not supplement their diets with folic acid.
On the other hand, a 2014 study published in Reproductive Biomedicine Online found that folic acid use in women with unexplained fertility issues was not correlated with successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) outcomes.
Thus, though more research is needed, these studies may suggest that folic acid supplementation can increase fertility in women trying to conceive through non-IVF methods.
Folic acid and Pregnancy
Folic acid is an essential supplement for pregnant women. Normal symptoms of folic acid deficiency include diarrhea, anemia, shortness of breath, mental confusion, headaches, and limb numbness.
In pregnant women, however, folic acid deficiency can also result in miscarriage, pregnancy complications, or birth defects. For example, inadequate folic acid intake can cause a growing embryo to develop neural tube defects.
During the third week of pregnancy, cells in the embryo form the neural tube, which later develops into the spinal cord and brain of the baby. A defect in the neural tube during this process prevents normal development and can result in major birth defects.
These include conditions such as spina bifida, or a misformed spine; anencephaly, the failure to develop a complete brain; and iniencephaly, which results in severe neck problems.
In the United States, fortification with folic acid has helped reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in the population. However, an expecting mother is still strongly recommended to supplement with folic acid to ensure proper growth and development of her growing child.
Who may benefit from taking a Folic acid supplement?
- women, who are pregnant
- women, who want to get pregnant
- individuals with folate deficiency
- individuals with kidney disease or high blood pressure
Does Folic acid have any side effects?
Folic acid side effects are minimal to none as long as individuals adhere to the recommended dose.
Folic acid interactions and combinations
Folic acid interacts with a number of medications. Folic acid should not be taken with certain medications used for the treatment of seizures. These include phenobarbital, fosphenytoin, and phenytoin.
Individuals taking methotrexate should also avoid folic acid capsules, as the two compounds will cancel each other's effects.
Folic acid dosage recommendations
Recommended folic acid dosage differs according to circumstance. For example, a daily dose of 400 mcg (micrograms) is recommended to prevent neural tube defects in pregnant women, while a dose of 0.8-1 mg/day (milligrams per day) is recommended for individuals seeking to decrease blood levels of homocysteine.
To prevent harmful interactions and avoid folic acid side effects, please check with your physician regarding a proper folic acid dosage.
Why take a Folic acid supplement?Folic supplements should be taken by individual, who want to
- maintain healthy levels of folic acid
- reduce blood levels of homocysteine
- decrease risk of stroke
- prevent neural tube defects in growing baby
- ensure successful pregnancy