If you are a woman of “child-bearing” age you have likely heard of folic acid and that it helps prevent birth defects. At least I hope you know this. I find that some people are aware that they need folic acid, but aren’t sure why. Everyone needs it, so just because you aren’t a woman or of child-bearing age, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention.
What is folic acid? It is one of the eight B vitamins, also known as folate. Folate is the natural form of the B vitamin and folic acid is the synthetic version that we get in vitamin supplements. Both are perfectly fine, and one is not superior to the other. They are the same but different.
What does it do? Folate/folic acid is essential for cell division and DNA synthesis. This means that folate is the vitamin that ensures production of new and healthy cells. If there is a deficiency, there is a potential problem: cells won’t divide properly (when the birth defect presents) or DNA could change increasing risk of cancer.
Who needs it? Everyone. Adults and children, male and female need folate/folic acid. However, some populations need more or need to be more conscious of their intake. As mentioned, women of childbearing age need to make sure they are getting their recommended amount before they become pregnant to reduce risk of neural tube defects which include spina bifida or anencephaly. This is when the spine and skull don’t completely close in the growing fetus. Development of this part of the fetus occurs very early in the pregnancy, most often before the woman knows she is pregnant. Estimates suggest that about half of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned, therefore all women of child-bearing age should be diligent of their intake. You never know what may happen.
How much do we need? 400 micrograms or 0.4 mg (the same thing) for everyone. Pregnant women should get more: 600 micrograms.
Where do we get it? Most breakfast cereals have folic acid added, as well as many enriched grains like rice, pastas and breads. Folate is found in most beans, spinach, asparagus, and broccoli as well as some fruits. All multi-vitamins should contain 400 micrograms. So, if you aren’t sure if you are getting enough, a multivitamin will provide it for you. Since folate/folic acid is a B vitamin, which is water-soluble, we generally don’t worry about overconsumption. Your body will get rid of the excess on your next trip to the bathroom.
For more information about folate/folic acid:
- CDC Folic Acid Homepage
- Fruits and Veggies Matter.gov: Vegetable of the Month: More about beans – how to cook them, nutrition facts, and all types of beans
- Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health – Folate