Why we need folic acid

By: Myrnelle Cinco

Most of us don’t really give attention to our everyday food intake. Nor do we care much if we’re getting enough of a certain vitamin or not. However, you might want to check if you’ve been putting enough folic acid-rich food on your plate, especially if you’re pregnant or taking certain medications.

Folic acid, also called folate, is a water soluble B vitamin. It was first identified in 1930 by Lucy Wills and was at first named “Wills factor”. Wills factor was extracted from yeast and helped cure anemia in pregnant Indian women. It was later extracted from Spinach leaves and was renamed folate, derived from the latin word ‘folium’ which means ‘leaf.’

Folic acid is important because it is needed for red blood cell formation and can therefore prevent anemia. It helps in repairing and creating new cells, and is especially needed during pregnancy and infancy, the time when cell division is at its prime. It breaks down homocysteine, an amino acid found in blood which can increase risk of getting a stroke, atherosclerosis and coronary heart diseases. Folic acid also aids in DNA synthesis; deficiency can cause damage to the DNA which can lead to certain types of cancer such as cervical, breast, pancreatic and colon cancer.

Neural tube defects (NTD), the second most common birth defect after cardiac defects can be prevented with folic acid intake, according to a study done by Aubrey Millunsky and Caroll Bruell published in the Journal of American Medical Association. NTD is a birth defect that affects the central nervous system, the most common of which is Spina Bifida and Anencephaly. Spina Bifida is the condition characterized by improper closure of the spinal column leaving the infant’s spine vulnerable. This results to the nerves controlling leg movement to not work. Anencephaly, on the other hand, is a condition wherein the baby’s brain does not develop, resulting in death shortly after birth.

According to the Dietary Reference Intake, men and women require 400 micrograms (0.4 milligram) of folic acid daily but some people have special need for folic acid, such as those taking medications for epilepsy, Type 2 diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease; those with kidney diseases and are on dialysis; alcoholics, and those with sickle disease or celiac disease. These people need more than 400 micrograms daily because of interruption of absorption of folic acid. Pregnant women need 800 micrograms (0.8 milligram) because it helps prevent NTDs.

Pregnant women who had a baby with birth defect are recommended to take 4 mg of folic acid daily. The health risk from taking too much folic acid is low. Since it’s a water soluble vitamin, any excess gets lost during urination. There are studies though that show that too much folic acid levels in the blood can cause seizures in people who are taking antiepileptic medications. Plus, taking too much supplemental folic acid can cause B12 deficiency.

Some of the symptoms of folic acid deficiency include fatigue, diarrhea, loss of appetite, ulcer, and soreness of the tongue but most of these are subtle. According to womenshealth.gov,  folid acid deficiency can also be caused by drinking too much alcohol, having diseases that causes the body to not absorb folic acid well such as celiac disease or crohn’s disease, intaking medications such as phenytoin (an antiepileptic drug), sulfasalazine (used to treat arthritis) and co-trimoxazole (used to treat urinary tract infections, bronchitis and nocardiosis).

The best sources of folic acid are green leafy vegetables such as spinach but there are other foods that contain folic acid: beans, citrus fruits, nuts, legumes, and liver. There are also folic acid supplements, and cereals, flour and bread enriched in folic acid. Check the ‘Nutritional Facts’ to see if the item has folic acid and how much of it is in each serving.

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