Let's dive deeper into the world of this important nutrient by answering some of the most common questions about folic acid.
Folic Acid Versus Folate: What's the Difference?
Folic acid and folate are both forms of vitamin B9; however, one is man-made and the other occurs naturally in the foods we eat:
- Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate and is converted in the body to an active, usable form. Folic acid is used in supplements and to fortify foods, such as rice, pasta, bread and cereal.
- Folate is naturally present in whole foods, such as leafy green vegetables, fruits and beans.
Folate for Pregnancy: Its Essential Role
We all have been told that taking a folic acid supplement is important when you're pregnant — but why? Firstly, this vitamin plays an important role in preventing anemia.
During pregnancy, blood plasma volume increases, creating a demand for increase in red blood cells to support the growth of the fetus. When folate levels are inadequate in the body, it produces large, poorly formed red blood cells. This condition is called macrocytic anemia, or vitamin-deficient anemia. To prevent this condition, folate is required to keep up with the production of red blood cells, which helps keep blood flow healthy for expecting mothers and their babies, too.
Secondly, folate helps to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs) in a developing fetus. NTDs affect the development of the baby's brain and spinal cord between 21 and 28 days after conception.
One in every 33 newborns in the United States is born with a birth defect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. To prevent neural tube and brain and spinal cord defects, getting adequate folate intake for pregnancy — before and throughout — is key.
In addition, to reduce the risk of premature births, women planning on getting pregnant should take a supplement that contains a form of folate at least 12 months prior to conception.
How Can This Vitamin Benefit All Women?
Even if you're not planning to become pregnant, getting adequate folate in your diet is still important.
Folate plays a pivotal role in tissue growth and cell function, and it works with vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and vitamin C to break down and create new proteins. Cellular regeneration is an ongoing process in the body; our skin layers, nails and hair grow daily, which requires protein and DNA production.
"A healthy diet includes foods rich in folate such as asparagus, leafy greens, avocado, fortified pasta or cereal, and eggs. It is essential for rapidly growing cells. Therefore, folate plays an important role in gut health, immunity, and to prevent some forms of anemia. Our general health depends upon it," says Mary Weiler, PhD, RDN, a pediatric research scientist with Abbott.
Research also suggests that folate may play a role in reducing the side effects of menopause. In one U.S. study in the Journal of Caring Sciences, menopausal women who supplemented 1 milligram of folic acid daily saw decreases in the severity, duration and frequency of their hot flashes.