You've probably heard of folic acid, but you may be wondering exactly what it is, what it does, and whether you should supplement your intake. We're breaking down the answers to five folic acid questions below.
What's folic acid anyway?
Folic acid, as synthetic folate is called, is also known as vitamin B9. And B9 is not only a prenatal powerhouse, it can also help keep mouths healthy. Whether it comes from dietary folate (the kind of folate found naturally in foods) or folic acid (synthetic folate that comes from supplements or fortified foods), our bodies need this B9 to make red blood cells, among other things.
Not having enough red blood cells (also known as anemia), makes it hard for the cells throughout our bodies to get the oxygen they need to thrive — including our gums and tongue. And folate itself has been found to play and important role in oral health, to the point that consuming enough folate can help prevent periodontal disease. It's been found that increasing folic acid intake is associated with lower rates of gingivitis and gum inflammation.
Okay, that does sound important. But if we always need it, why the hype around folic acid and pregnancy?
Vitamin B9 helps in production of red blood cells, and it's true that our bodies always need enough red blood cells to carry oxygen. But more than our oral health will suffer from anemia. And during pregnancy, the body has even more demands on red blood cell production. Pregnancy means the body is making lots of extra blood — blood volume will increase by about 50% over the course of a typical pregnancy.
In addition to helping with this increased red blood cell production, we also need more folate during pregnancy to support fetal growth and development in general. But the reason we hear so much about folic acid and pregnancy is because it plays a crucial role in reducing the chance of brain and spine birth defects.
Uh, what? Folic acid helps reduce the rate of birth defects?
Yes, getting enough folic acid can help avert neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. Two seminal studies in the early 1990s confirmed this link, prompting the FDA and Health Canada, among other authorities worldwide, to fortify flour with folic acid — subsequently rates of neural tube defects dropped dramatically.
Who needs a folic acid supplement?
Both the U.S.-based Center for Disease Control (CDC) and international World Health Organization (WHO) recommend a daily supplement with at least 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid for all women in the early stages of pregnancy (first twelve weeks of gestation). In fact, the CDC recommends that all women of childbearing age take a supplement with at least 400 mcg folic acid and consume folate-rich foods as part of a varied diet.
The spine develops in the first month of pregnancy, which is so early you may not know you are pregnant in time to begin taking a supplement. People with a history of neural tube defects may be prescribed a higher dose of folic acid, so do check with your doctor about dosage.
Are folic acid supplements only for people who are having a baby?
Nope! Even if you're not a woman of childbearing age, a folic acid supplement might still be right for you. And it's relatively easy to find: Because it's so strongly recommended for public health, the widely recommended dose for women of childbearing age — at least 400 mcg — is usually found in multivitamins marketed to the general public. Talk to your doctor if you're interested in incorporating a supplement, because certain groups are at risk of inadvertently taking excessive amounts of folic acid (especially if they're taking many supplements).
Getting folate from our diets is ideal, but many people may benefit from a folic acid supplement. For example, people with conditions that prevent the intestine from absorbing nutrients, such as celiac disease, might not be getting enough B9 from their diets, even if they're consuming enough of it in food. And people with limited diets (for whatever reason) just might not be getting enough folate in their diets.
Oh, got it! What foods are folate-rich?
We can't store folate in the body, but a balanced diet should yield lots of folate for the body to use each day. Lentils are one food packed with naturally occurring dietary folate. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, are also great sources of this essential vitamin. Eating broccoli and asparagus can deliver body-supporting B9, too. And our bodies do need that folate to do lots of vital stuff.
In addition to helping prevent neural tube defects and supporting red blood cell production, it's also an important component of healthy cell growth, heart health, brain function, and mental health. Getting enough folate is even associated with lower rates of cancer in population studies. The good news is, in addition to folic acid supplements and naturally occurring dietary sources of folate, many dietary staples such as flour, rice, bread, and breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid in the United States, and it should be listed on the nutrition information label.