Folate, also known as vitamin B9 or folic acid, is an essential nutrient for the human body. Many foods naturally contain folate, such as dark-green leafy vegetables, beans, whole grains, and eggs. Food manufacturers add folic acid, the man-made version of folate, to foods to fortify them with this important vitamin. Folate is also available as a supplement in many forms.
Folate is important for basic cell function in your body. It helps to form the RNA and DNA that tell our cells what to do.
In addition, folate can provide health benefits such as:
Neural Tube Birth Defect Prevention
Neural tube birth defects occur in an unborn baby's brain or spine. The neural tube forms in the embryo and later becomes the baby's brain, spine, and spinal cord.
One neural tube defect is anencephaly, a disease in which a baby is born without key parts of the brain and skull. Most babies born with anencephaly do not survive long past birth. Another neural tube defect is spina bifida, which is a malformation of the spine. Some cases are mild and may not even be detected. Other cases are moderate or severe and cause lifelong disability.
Taking a folic acid supplement starting one month before you get pregnant and continuing to take it during pregnancy reduces the risk of these birth defects. The body does not absorb natural folate found in foods as easily as supplements of folic acid, so experts recommend taking a supplement before and during pregnancy.
Because about half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, it's recommended that women of reproductive age get 400 micrograms of folic acid each day in addition to consuming foods with folate. Then, if you do have an unplanned pregnancy, your baby will be at a lower risk of neural tube defects.
Decreased Risk of Certain Cancers
Getting enough folate in your diet may reduce the risk of getting certain types of cancers. For example, one study showed that folate supplementation resulted in a 50% reduction in the risk of getting squamous cell carcinoma — the second most common type of skin cancer — of the head and neck.
Folate also reduces the risk of developing mouth cancer and throat cancer, certain types of esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer.
Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
High levels of the protein homocysteine in the blood can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, leading to heart attack and stroke. A folate deficiency can cause elevated homocysteine levels. Supplementing your diet with folate helps to break down the excess homocysteine in your blood, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another benefit of folate is related to mutations of the MTHFR gene, which is essential for processing homocysteine. Some people have a mutation of this gene that causes lower folate levels and prevents the body from breaking down homocysteine efficiently. Because of this, people with the MTHFR mutation may have higher levels of homocysteine in their blood, leading to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, babies of pregnant women who have the MTHFR gene mutation may be at a higher risk of neural tube birth defects. Doctors recommend that those with an MTHFR gene mutation supplement with folic acid to both reduce homocysteine levels and reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects.
While supplementation of folate can reduce the risk of certain cancers, it can also lead to an elevated risk of prostate cancer. Additionally, folic acid supplements may cause already existing cancers to grow faster. More study is needed to determine the exact relationship between folate and cancer.
Folic acid is generally considered safe. However, taking folic acid supplements while on the following medications may result in them being less effective:
- Anticonvulsants: fosphenytoin (Cerebyx), phenytoin (Dilantin), and primidone (Mysoline)
- Barbiturates (anesthesia and other drugs that act as a nervous system depressants)
- methotrexate ( Trexall), a treatment for psoriasis
- pyrimethamine (Daraprim), to treat parasite infection
If you are on any of these medications, ask your doctor before taking a folic acid supplement.
Folic acid may cause some mild to moderate side effects, including:
- Nausea/loss of appetite
- Bad taste in the mouth
- Sleep disturbances
Some people may have an allergic reaction to folic acid supplements. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to folate include:
- Itchiness and redness
- Breathing problems
If you have any of these symptoms, contact a doctor before taking the supplement again.
Amounts and Dosage
It's recommended that anyone over the age of 14 should consume 400 micrograms of folate each day, while pregnant women should consume 400 to 800 micrograms per day. Children need lower amounts of folate. The exact dosage depends on their age:
● Birth to 6 months: 65 micrograms
● Infants 7–12 months: 80 micrograms
● Children 1–3 years: 150 micrograms
● Children 4–8 years: 200 micrograms
● Children 9–13 years: 300 micrograms
The following foods contain high levels of folate:
● Beef liver
● Dark leafy greens
● Orange juice
● Other fresh fruits and fruit juices
● Fortified products like enriched breakfast cereals, breads, and pastas