Folic acid is synthesized from folate (also called vitamin B9 or folacin), which plays a crucial role in a number of body functions, particularly in the proper development of the fetus from the first days of conception.
Physicians advise that all women of childbearing age take a regular folic acid supplement since 50% of pregnancies are unplanned, and as the neural tube, from which the infant's nervous system will develop, is one of the first things to develop in a fetus. Often, by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, much of that important development is already done. Women who are deficient in folate risk giving birth to infants who are low in birth weight or due to neural tube defects have a spinal malformation, such as spina bifida, or other neurological disorders.
Folic acid is so important that it is one of the vitamins that the FDA requires be added to fortified foods such as bread, flour, breakfast cereals, pasta and rice. Since this requirement was enacted in 1998, the rate of neural tube defects has decreased 26%.
Folate is also crucial to proper cell growth. DNA and RNA, the building blocks of all our cells, rely on folate to develop properly, and folate has been found to help prevent the changes in DNA that can lead to the development of cancerous cells. It also aids in the healthy formation of red blood cells, which is necessary in order to avoid anemia.
Folate helps keep homocysteine levels in the blood low, reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease, aids in the proper functioning of your nerves through the synthesis of neurotransmitters, and helps prevent dementia, Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis-related bone fractures.
Signs of folate deficiency include: insomnia, depression, irritability, muscle fatigue, sore tongue, diarrhea, gingivitis and mental fuzziness.
Some good natural sources of folate include: green leafy vegetables such as spinach and collard greens; beans and legumes such as lentils and peas; and fruit and fruit juices, particularly tomato juice and orange juice. Liver is also an excellent source, and cooking it does not easily destroy its folate, which can be the case when cooking vegetables. To maintain the greatest amount of folate in your vegetables, either eat them raw or cook them for as short a time as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that adults get 400 mcg of folic acid every day, either through their diet or by taking a dietary supplement. If pregnant, that amount should be raised to 600 mcg daily, and 500 mcg every day for women who are breastfeeding.