The B vitamin folate, also called folic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin. Water-soluble vitamins are stored in the body in very limited amounts and are excreted through the urine. Therefore, it is a good idea to have them in your daily diet. Folate is considered a crucial vitamin before and during pregnancy. Research has shown that folate deficiencies during pregnancy can lead to neural tube birth defects in babies.
Folate's functions include:
- Helping amino acid metabolism and conversion
- Producing and maintaining new cells
- Making DNA and RNA, the building blocks of cells
- Preventing changes to DNA that may lead to cancer
- Making red blood cells, preventing anemia
- Assisting in the creation of neurotransmitters (chemicals that regulate sleep, pain, and mood)
Folate deficiency is a common vitamin deficiency. It can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- Need is increased, as with pregnancy
- Dietary intake is lacking
- Body is excreting more than usual
Medications interfering with the body's ability to use folate include:
- Anti-convulsant mediations
Signs or symptoms of folate deficiency include:
Too Much Folate
Large doses of folate can cause symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency to appear. Vitamin B12 deficiency is common in older adults. Although folate supplementation will alleviate the anemia caused by the B12 deficiency, the nervous system damage caused by the B12 deficiency will continue. This is why it is important that you talk to your doctor before you take a folate supplement. It may be necessary for you to take vitamin B12 supplements along with the folate.
There is no upper limit for ingesting folate found naturally in foods. However, there are tolerable upper intake levels for folate consumed from fortified foods and supplements:
Major Food Sources
There is a variety of foods that contain folate. Some foods, like cereal, rice, and flour, are fortified with folate. Here is a list of major food sources and their folate content.
Populations at Risk of Folate Deficiency
The following populations may be at risk of folate deficiency and may require a supplement:
- Pregnant women—Folate is critical for the production and maintenance of new cells. This is especially important during pregnancy—a period of rapid cell division.
- People who consume excessive amounts of alcohol—Alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate and increases excretion by the kidneys. In addition, many alcoholics tend to have diets low in essential nutrients, like folate.
- People on certain medications—Certain medications can interfere with the body's ability to use folate. Check with your doctor about supplementation if you are on medication that may affect your folate levels.
- People with inflammatory bowel diseases—Malabsorption of folate can occur with inflammatory bowel diseases.
- The elderly—Many elderly have low blood levels of folate, which can occur from low intake of the vitamin or problems with absorption.
In 1991, a landmark study found a relationship between folate and birth defects. Subsequent research has supported the finding that adequate folate intake during the period before and just after conception protects against a number of neural tube defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly.
The crucial period is before and very early after conception—a time when most women do not know they are pregnant. Therefore, the recommendation is that all women of childbearing age make sure they have a folate intake of at least 400 mcg.
Tips for Increasing Your Folate Intake:
To help increase your intake of folate:
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 03/2014 -
- Update Date: 00/30/2014 -