Folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, which is also known as vitamin B9, is most well known for its use in pregnancy to prevent birth defects in unborn babies. But recent research is showing that this vitamin is important for the general population too, and many of us are lacking it. Perhaps more people would be more likely to supplement their folic acid (or folate) intake if they knew it could help prevent some of the most common diseases that plague us today.
Folic acid, which is converted by the body into folate in order to be used, is key for nerve function, the development of healthy DNA, and the creation of red blood cells, among other things. This vitamin is important for the development of a growing fetus, but it’s also important for every human being to get enough of it. And now we’re learning more about how it might help fight off certain diseases too.
A review of studies in the journal Nutrients found that taking a folic acid supplement on a regular basis reduced inflammation in patients. Inflammation is a root cause of a wide variety of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
Another study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine, suggests that folic acid, once converted to folate, also helps the body break down a compound called homocysteine, which is made when the body digests proteins. High levels of homocysteine are associated with damaged blood vessels, reduced blood flow, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Folic acid, therefore, may help prevent these issues as well.
Based on these findings, the University of Aberdeen now recommends that all people over 65 work to increase their intake of folic acid and/or folate to three times the current daily recommendation of 200mcg. This recommendation has yet to be adopted by other organizations or evaluated by the FDA, of course, so it should be followed cautiously and only after talking to your doctor.
Luckily, folic acid’s natural form, folate, is available in many of the foods we eat, and folic acid comes in supplement form for those people who are not able to get enough folate in their diets. Most of us do not eat enough of these foods, but it’s better to get the vitamin in food form when possible, especially because not everyone’s body is great at breaking down folic acid into a usable form. Here are some ways you can increase your intake through diet.
Foods that Contain Folate
- Edamame beans: 200mcg in a 62g serving
- Kiwi: 40mcg in two kiwi fruits
- Baked beans: 50mcg in half a can
- Peanut butter: 40mcg in 32g serving
- Stilton cheese: 55mcg in 70g serving
- Orange juice: 50mcg in 200ml serving
- Mussels: 36mcg in ten mussels
- Asparagus: 150mcg in 100g serving
- Boiled eggs: 48mcg in two eggs
Eating raw foods will help maximize benefits, because cooking can destroy some nutrients.
As the world begins to realize how important folate is and how few of us get the recommended dose, a movement has begun to fortify certain foods, such as flour, with folic acid. In fact, this has already happened in many countries, including the U.S.
“This would be an effective and safe measure to boost the nation’s intake and reduce number of babies born with neural tube defects,” says Clare Thornton-Wood, a dietitian based in Guildford who is also a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much folic acid. Research suggests that an overabundance of this synthetic vitamin could be capable of causing diarrhea, sleep disorders, neurological disorders, and even seizures. It could also mask symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, which is common in elderly people and might even be linked to certain cancers. However, these concerns are not fully supported by research, and enough people around the world are getting too little folate to make the change potentially worthwhile.
Talk to your doctor about your current folate and folic acid intake and what you can do to ensure you’re getting enough (but not too much). When in doubt, stick to the natural version to stave off the nasty side effects that could come with too much of the synthetic version.
It’s important to pay attention to the foods you eat or the supplements you take that contain folate or folic acid, but it’s likely that you’re not getting enough if you’re not working at it. Adding the healthy foods listed above to your diet could help you stay healthy and ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes.