What is Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)?
Folic acid supplements are a synthetic form of vitamin B9 that the body converts to folate upon ingestion. Like all B vitamins, folic acid is water-soluble. It’s an essential vitamin that individuals must consume through food or supplementation. Researchers initially discovered folic acid factors in 1931. However, they did not isolate the vitamin until 1943. They named if folic acid after the Latin word for leaf, folium, as they discovered it in green, leafy vegetables.
Folate coenzymes play a pivotal role in metabolizing DNA and numerous amino acids, including cysteine, glycine, histidine, methionine, and serine. Folate also works with vitamin B12 to synthesize methionine from homocysteine. A deficiency in either vitamin can cause homocysteine to accumulate. Elevated homocysteine levels increase the risk of developing chronic heart conditions. The fetuses of pregnant women with folate deficiencies have an increased risk of developing neural tube defects.
Folate v Folic Acid
It’s common to see the terms folate and folic acid used interchangeably, but they have different implications. Folic acid refers to the manufactured form of vitamin B9, whereas folate is an umbrella term for all forms of vitamin B9 and its related bioactive nutrients and compounds.
Folic Acid Foods
Manufacturers fortify many grain products with folic acid. Dark green, leafy vegetables are one of the richest natural food sources of folic acid. However, it’s found in several other plant and animal food sources. These include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Chicken liver
- Calf liver
Folic Acid Deficiency Symptoms
Most folate deficiencies are the result of low dietary intake of vitamin B9. Some health conditions can cause a folate deficiency. Folate levels are about 15% lower in individuals who smoke versus nonsmokers. Long-term alcohol abuse can also reduce the body’s ability to absorb folate. Pregnant women have an increased risk of folate deficiency as pregnancy increases the body’s demand for vitamin B9. Individuals with malabsorptive conditions and the MTHFR polymorphism may develop folic acid deficiencies. Some medications can interfere with folate metabolism, including NSAIDs, certain anticonvulsants, and some cholesterol medications.
Folate deficiencies can lead to megaloblastic anemia, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Weakness, sore tongue (glossitis), irritability, and headaches are also common. Pregnant women with folate deficiencies are likely to give birth prematurely to infants with low birth weight. Folate deficiency also increases the risk of neural tube defects in infants, including spina bifida. Taking folic acid supplements corrects folate deficiencies for most individuals.
Potential Folic Acid Benefits
Folic Acid and Cognition
Folate is essential for cognitive health. Even low-normal levels of folate can reduce mental function. One study spanning two years of daily folate supplements found that folic acid improved brain function in adults with mild cognitive impairments. Another study found that six months of daily folic acid supplementation improved participants thinking capabilities and reduced neuroinflammation.
Folic Acid and Mood
Low folate levels have a strong correlation with mood disorders. The brain needs folate to synthesize neurotransmitters, perform methylation reactions, and metabolize homocysteine. The brain can’t adequately perform these functions when folate levels are low, which can affect moods and individuals’ sense of well-being.
Folic Acid and Heart Health
One of vitamin B9’s most critical roles in the body is the conversion of homocysteine into methionine. Elevated homocysteine levels increase the risk of heart health problems. Folate helps lower homocysteine levels by working with vitamin B12 to convert homocysteine into methionine.
Potential Folic Acid Side Effects
Most individuals tolerate folic acid well, as it is an essential vitamin. High doses can lead to a buildup of unmetabolized folic acid and mask vitamin B12 deficiencies. Most vitamin B12 food sources come from animals. Vegans have a higher risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency and should always take folic acid with a vitamin B12 supplement.
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