Folic acid and the diet

There are many micronutrients that are important parts of the human diet, and folic acid is just one of them.  Commonly associated with pregnant women, many people assume that the rest of the population does not require it.  However, while women who are pregnant do need greater amounts, folic acid has several functions in the body and everybody needs to meet certain daily requirements for the nutrient, in order to prevent deficiency disorders.  It is very important to meet the intake requirements every day, because this is one of the nutrients that cannot be stored in the body, because it is not fat-soluble.

Fresh spinach iin a wooden bowl on a cutting board

Folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin that may also be known as folate.  It is part of the B vitamin complex, and although only rarely referred to as such, its designation is vitamin B9.  Approximately 0.2mg of folic acid is needed each day, which should easily be obtained from a healthy, balanced diet.  If you are looking to get pregnant in the near future, then you may wish to speak to your doctor about starting folic acid supplements.  This is because folic acid is one of the substances that promotes correct development and helps to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida.  Taking 0.4mg of folic acid as a supplement each day while you are trying to get pregnant, and for the first twelve weeks of the pregnancy, is highly recommended.  Your doctor will advise you on supplements as part of your antenatal care.

So, why is folic acid needed as one of the regular nutrients in the diet?  It has a number of important roles in the body, particularly in the function of red blood cells.  It combines with vitamin B12 in order to help produce these cells, and a lack of this nutrient can lead to a form of anaemia known as folate deficiency anaemia.  The main symptom of this, as with any form of anaemia, is fatigue, which can make it difficult to distinguish the exact cause.  A blood test must be carried out in order to determine the cause of the condition.

Folic acid is also associated with a decreased risk of colon and rectal cancer, although the effects are greatest when the folic acid is obtained solely from food.  It is also thought to reduce the risk of prostate cancer, after numerous scientific studies have shown this effect.  However, a diet that is high in folic acid may lead to an increased risk of breast cancer, although more research is needed to confirm this.

Folic acid is found in a wide variety of foods, although in small amounts.  However, by eating a varied diet, it is extremely easy to meet the recommended daily allowance.  Foods that contain folic acid include:

  • A wide variety of green vegetables, including broccoli, sprouts, asparagus and spinach.
  • Fortified cereals.
  • Brown rice.
  • Liver.

It is possible to take in too much folic acid, and this can lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency being masked.  Both folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiency lead to the symptoms of anaemia and fatigue, so it can be extremely difficult to identify which is responsible.  However, an intake of 1mg or less is unlikely to cause any harm on a short or long term basis, and can be extremely beneficial.  Due to the water-soluble nature of folic acid, it will be rapidly removed from the body, even after an overdose, once you stop taking any supplements.  It will be filtered out of the blood by the kidneys, and excreted in the urine.  You should then stop experiencing any side effects of a folic acid overdose.

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