Discover the power of vitamins: Facts & benefits of folic acid

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Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)

As it turns out, mother does know best — at least when it comes to eating your spinach. Although for some, it extremely high in folate. In fact, the name folate is a derivative of the Latin word “is probably not the best tasting, nor is it even the best looking vegetable around, but spinach is folium” meaning leaf. This important B vitamin is not only essential for proper RNA/DNA synthesis and brain development, but it is also crucial for the production of red blood cells and in maintaining a functioning nervous system.

Folic acid & pregnancy

Nearly 70 years ago, Dr. Lucy Willis identified folate as a vital nutrient in the prevention of anemia in pregnant women. She discovered that a specific yeast extract could actually correct anemia, and in the late 1930s, she identified folate as that corrective substance. By 1941, folate was already being extracted from spinach leaves for this purpose. By 1996, the synthetic form of folate, called folic acid, was considered such an important nutrient, that both the US and Canadian governments published regulations requiring it be added to many of our commonly used foods, such as enriched bread, corn meal, pasta, rice, flour, and cereal.

Foods high in folic acid

Although this water-soluble nutrient can be found in its original state in many non-manufactured foods, including, dark green leafy vegetables, asparagus, beans, kelp, soybeans and soy flour as well as oranges, strawberries, rice, brewer’s yeast, beef, and liver, the problem is that most of us don’t eat enough of these folate-rich foods. Nevertheless, even if we did, cooking or over processing them, destroys the folic acid, making supplementation through vitamins or enriched foods essential.

Folic acid for reducing birth defects

Probably the most common, or at least the first symptom of a folic acid deficiency, is a neural tube defect. These early birth defects usually affect the skull, brain and spine of a fetus, resulting in cases of spina bifida or similar problems. There is strong evidence however, suggesting that regular use of folic acid can reduce neural tube defects by 50–80 percent. Studies also show that folic acid may play an important role in reducing the risk of other birth defects including those of the heart, urinary tract and palate. But despite such overwhelming evidence, an alarming number (68-87 percent) of American women within childbearing age, are not taking at least the recommended 400 microgram daily dose of folic acid.

Potential of Folic acid for Alzheimer’s disease

Folic acid is not just for pregnant women or children. Recent studies praise folic acid for its seeming ability to slow the degeneration process of the brain. Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist Marilyn Albert, chair of the science advisory council for the Alzheimer’s Association, states that Folic Acid does in fact, offer significant brain protection. It appears from a recent Dutch study of 818 people, ranging in age from 50–75, that taking large amounts of folic acid (twice the recommended daily dose of 400 micrograms or the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of strawberries) for three years, can actually improve memory and slow cognitive aging.

Where do I sign up you ask? Well, not so fast. Although the findings are extremely encouraging, taking large amounts of Folic Acid (1-5 mg/day) is not always advisable because it can actually mask the early signs of a Vitamin B12 deficiency known as pernicious anemia. If this condition goes untreated, possible irreversible nerve damage may result. It is recommended therefore, if you take high doses of Folic Acid, (especially if you are over 55), that you also have your B12levels checked regularly.

Folic acid for reducing the risk of heart disease

On the plus side, according to another recent study of 80,000 women, high levels of folic acid may account for a 50 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease. The study looked into the relationship between folic acid and high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid normally found in the blood). Elevated homocysteine levels interfere with the body’s natural ability to regulate blood flow and can damage the coronary arteries, increasing the chances of a blood clot. Researches found that Folic acid aids in reducing homocysteine levels, possibly lowering the risk of disease and increasing healthy heart function.

Folic acid for reducing the risk of cancer

One of the more encouraging folic acid studies suggests that people with high folic acid blood levels have a patently lower risk of pancreatic, breast, cervix, lung, mouth and colon cancer. The theory behind this study relies on the fact that folic acid is involved in the function of DNA repair and synthesis (our genetic coding), therefore a deficiency can result in damage to these cells. In short, without sufficient folic acid, cells and tissue cannot divide properly, resulting in rapidly growing, cancerous cells.

Further studies have also found folic acid to be helpful in cases of depression, bipolar disorder, periodontal disease, rheumatoid arthritis, restless leg syndrome, gout, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis (in conjunction with B12), osteoporosis, seborrheic dermatitis and vitiligo (a splotchy loss of skin pigmentation). As well, Folic acid has been known to help reduce the side effects of certain prescription drugs affecting the liver and kidneys, such as methotrexate (a common cancer drug) or in fact, increase their effectiveness, as is the case of the nitroglycerin family of drugs.

Folic acid mouthwash

Folic acid has been clinically tested in mouthwash solutions to assess its benefit in treating gingivitis. One study showed that after four weeks of using a folic acid mouthwash, significant improvement occurred, compared with placebo. However, in this controlled study involving 60 patients, the taking of dietary folic acid supplements did not produce results, which suggests the importance of applying folic acid topically to the gums (Journal of Clinical Periodontology (11: 619-28, 1984).

In a double-blind study-that is, a medical study in which neither the subjects nor the persons administering the treatment knows which treatment a subject is receiving-30 pregnant women received folic-acid mouthwash, folic-acid tablets or placebo. After 28 days, folate serum levels increased significantly in both groups receiving folic acid, but only the group receiving the folic-acid mouthwash showed a highly significant improvement in a gingival index. There were no significant changes in the plaque index (Journal of Clinical Periodontology (9[3]:27580, 1982).

In another study, 30 patients with normal blood folate levels were studied in a clinical setting. One group rinsed their mouths daily with a folate solution and the other used a placebo mouth rinse. After 60 days, the group receiving the folic-acid rinse showed significant improvement in gingival health, compare with the placebo group (Journal of Oral Medicine (33[1]:20-22,1978).

To date, there is no associated risk with folate intake from natural food sources. And because Folic Acid is water soluble, the risk of toxicity from supplements or fortified foods is extremely low since any excess will be excreted in the urine. The only precaution with Folic Acid is for people taking very high doses — they should have their B12 levels checked regularly.