Folic acid is one of the most crucial B vitamins that has several health benefits. This NutriNeat write-up provides you some important information about this vitamin, including its role in preventing certain birth defects in babies.
The risk of neural tube defects can be reduced by up to 70% by taking folic acid supplementation at least one month before conception and during the first trimester.
Folic acid, also known as Vitamin B9, is a water soluble vitamin, which is crucial for numerous vital processes taking place within our body. This vitamin is of immense importance for cell division and growth, protein metabolism, the synthesis and repair of DNA, and the proper functioning of the brain. It is also required for the production of healthy red blood cells.
The name, folic acid or folate actually comes from the Latin word folium, which means leaf. True to its name, this vitamin is mainly found in leafy green vegetables. But nowadays, many other food, especially cereals are fortified with folic acid due to its immense importance for human health.
Health Benefits of Folic Acid
Facilitates the Production of RBC
Folic acid or folate is a crucial nutrient required for cell division or the production of new cells, especially for the generation of red blood cells. It is mainly required for the synthesis of ‘heme’, a component of the hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the hemoprotein that gives the characteristic red color to the blood, and is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. A deficiency of folic acid can cause anemia, and affect the maturation of young red blood cells.
Prevents Cardiovascular Diseases
This vitamin is believed to have several benefits for the cardiovascular system. It can help relax the blood vessels, and thereby regulate the level of blood pressure. After examining the medical records of more than 150,000 women in the age group of 23 to 70 years, doctors at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston observed that, women who took folic acid supplements had a reduced risk of developing hypertension.
Researchers are of the opinion that the results observed in this study are quite encouraging, though they are not enough to prove that folic acid can be used to treat hypertension. Folic acid can also promote the health of the heart by reducing the level of homocysteine, a type of amino acid. Elevated levels of this amino acid can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by promoting the formation of blood clots inside the blood vessels.
Promotes Hair Growth
Folic acid promotes the healthy growth of hair and prevents premature graying. A deficiency of this vitamin can, therefore, result in excessive hair loss and premature graying of hair.
Good for Mental Health
It can help improve memory and mental agility. This vitamin is important for the functions of the brain. In fact, a low level of folate may be related to depression. It has been observed in some randomized controlled trials that when used along with antidepressants, folic acid can help treat depression. In general, folic acid supplements have been observed to affect the noradrenaline and serotonin receptors in the brain, which could help explain the role of this vitamin in regulating mood.
Reduces the Risk of Macular Degeneration
Folic acid may reduce the risk of macular degeneration, an eye disease caused by the degeneration of the cells of macula lutea. This disease can cause blurred vision and sometimes, loss of vision or blindness. It has been observed in a study that the risk of macular degeneration reduced in women who took 2,500 mcg of folic acid, along with 1,000 mcg of cyanocobalamin and 500 mg of vitamin B6 daily.
Reduces the Risk of Cancer
A diet rich in folic acid has been observed to lower the risk of some types of cancer. The incidence of colon, cervical, and stomach cancer has been found to be low in people who get enough folate in their diet. Further, it has been observed that a deficiency of folate can increase the risk of breast cancer in women who drink alcohol.
In a study, where more than 50,0000 women were followed over a period of time, has observed that sufficient intake of this vitamin may reduce the risk of breast cancer in women who drink alcohol. However, it is not clear how this vitamin can help prevent cancer. One assumption is that folic acid can help prevent chromosomal mutations by keeping DNA healthy.
Folate or folic acid can also increase fertility in both men and women, and reduce the risk of age-related hearing loss. In addition to these, it can help reduce the side effects associated with the drug, methotrexate. Methotrexate is basically used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and certain types of cancer.
The Benefits for Pregnant Women
Folic acid is known as one of the most important prenatal vitamins that pregnant women are advised to take, especially in their first trimester. This vitamin can significantly reduce the risks of several birth defects including, spina bifida. Spina bifida is a neural tube defect in the developing embryo, which results when the neural tube fails to close correctly. The development of neural tube takes place in around one month after conception. Therefore, women are usually advised to start taking folic acid prior to conception and during early pregnancy.
Folic acid can also lower the risks of some other neural tube defects, like encephalocele and anencephaly. Folic acid supplementation may also help reduce the risk of cleft palate in babies. On the other hand, a deficiency of this vitamin may increase the risk of preterm delivery, fetal growth retardation, and low birth weight of the baby. The level of the amino acid homocysteine can increase when enough folic acid is not present in the body. A high level of homocysteine may cause miscarriage or spontaneous abortion, and increase the risk of some pregnancy complications, like preeclampsia and placental abruption.
Dietary Sources of Folic Acid
To prevent folic acid deficiency, it is quite important to know the food sources of this vitamin. The following are some of the good sources of folic acid:
- Mustard Greens
- Brussels sprout
- Root vegetables
- Whole grains
- Wheat germ and bulgur
- Lima beans
- Kidney beans
- Mung beans
- Beef liver
In the United States, all grains and cereal products are now fortified with folic acid. But still, supplementation of this vitamin can be required at times, along with its dietary intake. Folic acid supplements are usually prescribed to pregnant women, in order to reduce the risk of certain birth defects. The supplements of folic acid need to be taken in the appropriate dosage, as an overdose can cause diarrhea, nausea, abdominal distension, flatulence, and insomnia. To avoid such side effects, folic acid supplements should be taken judiciously, and as per the direction of your physicians.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.