What is the role of folic acid in my body?

Folate was first identified as an important vitamin needed to prevent anemia during pregnancy. Folate assists in the production and maintenance of new cells (such as red blood cells), RNA and DNA. This is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth such as during infancy and pregnancy. Folate also plays a role in regulation of homocysteine levels, lowering this amino acid. Elevated homocysteine may increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, bone fractures and Alzheimer's disease. A link between maternal folate status and neural tube birth defects (such as spina bifida) brought great attention to the importance of this vitamin.
Folate (or folic acid, as it’s referred to in fortified foods and supplements) is a B vitamin that supports the proper formation of red blood cells. Folate is particularly important for pregnant women, as a deficiency of it may cause birth defects (such as spina bifida). This is what led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), beginning in January 1998, to require all enriched cereal-grain products in the United States be fortified with folic acid. Like vitamins B6 and B12, folate also lowers homocysteine levels in the blood, helping to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and bone fractures.

Bone Health
Researchers in the United States and Holland reported the results of two separate studies in the New England Journal of Medicine linking the risk of bone fracture in elderly subjects to elevated homocysteine levels. Both reports suggested that folic acid and other homocysteine lowering B vitamins may play a key role in helping to prevent bone fractures.

Heart Health
The Nurses’ Health Study reported that women ages 27 to 44 who consumed at least 1,000 micrograms a day of total folate (two-and-a-half times the RDA) had a 46 percent lower risk of developing hypertension than those who consumed less than 200 micrograms a day.

Cancer Prevention
Folate levels that are too high -- or too low -- could raise your cancer risk. An Italian study linked a 50 percent reduction in precancerous lesions on the larynx of subjects with higher folate intake. And, according to Canadian animal researchers, low folate may actually initiate the development of colorectal cancer tumors. However, researchers caution that while folate may play an important role in preventing the development of colorectal cancer tumors, excessive supplementation may actually increase the replication of precancerous cells. The best way to ensure that your folate level is neither too high -- nor too low -- is to favor whole food sources over supplements and fortified products.

Dutch scientists have linked low folate levels to age-related hearing loss, finding that an increase in folic acid slowed down low-frequency hearing loss in a cohort of people ages 50 to 70.

Mental Health
Folate plays an important role in regulating neurochemical reactions that affect mood. Tufts University researchers analyzed folate levels in nearly 3,000 study subjects and found deficiencies in a large proportion of those who suffered from depression.
Folic acid is a manmade form of folate, which is a B vitamin that helps your body produce red blood cells as well as DNA. Everyone needs folic acid, but women who are able to get pregnant have an especially pressing need for it, because it can prevent serious birth defects, including spina bifida. Some experts believe that folic acid is important to heart health and may also prevent cell mutations that can lead to cancer. But these connections are not yet proven.
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD
Internal Medicine
Folic acid or folate (the terms refer respectively to vitamin B9's synthetic and natural forms) plays a role in the synthesis, repair, and function of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic material found in all cells. Leafy green vegetables and dried beans are good sources.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine
Folic acid, also known as folate, folacin, and pteroylmonoglutamate, functions together with vitamin B12 in many body processes and is critical to cellular division because it is necessary for DNA synthesis. Without folic acid, cells do not divide properly. In the case of folic acid deficiency, all cells of the body are affected, but it is the rapidly dividing cells, such as red blood cells and cells of the gastrointestinal and genital tracts, that are affected the most. Folic acid is critical to the development of the nervous system of the fetus, and deficiency of folic acid during pregnancy has been linked to several birth defects, including neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Folic acid, vitamin B12, and betaine also function to reduce body concentrations of homocysteine, an intermediate in the conversion of the amino acid methionine to cysteine. A higher-than-average homocysteine level has been implicated in a variety of conditions, including atherosclerosis and osteoporosis. Homocysteine is thought to promote atherosclerosis by directly damaging the arteries as well as reducing the integrity of the vessel walls. In osteoporosis, elevated homocysteine levels lead to a defective bone matrix by interfering with the proper formation of collagen, the main protein in bone.

Folic acid received its name from the Latin word folium, meaning "foliage," because it is found in high concentrations in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, beet greens, and Swiss chard. Other good sources of folic acid include whole grains, legumes, asparagus, broccoli, and cabbage.
Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

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Encyclopedia of Healing Foods

From the bestselling authors of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the most comprehensive and practical guide available to the nutritional benefits and medicinal properties of virtually everything...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.