Folic acid is a B vitamin that’s essential for human health. Although it’s present in many foods, not everyone gets enough. Learn about folic acid’s benefits, how to get more from your diet, and whether you should take a supplement.
What Is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is vitamin B9. Your body can’t make this vitamin, so you must get it through your diet. It’s a key nutrient that’s involved in:
- Building DNA and RNA, which carry genetic information in your cells.
- Forming healthy red blood cells.
- Helping cells divide normally.
- Turning food into energy that cells can use.
- Metabolizing protein.
You need folic acid throughout all stages of life. But it’s critical during periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy and fetal development.
Adults should get 400 mcg of folic acid every day. Pregnant women need more — 600 mcg a day. And women who are breastfeeding should get 500 mcg a day.
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Folate vs. Folic Acid
You might hear folic acid referred to as folate. Both terms refer to vitamin B9, but they are different forms of the vitamin.
Folate is the form that occurs naturally in foods. It’s in many fresh foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans). You can boost your folate intake by eating more of these folate-rich foods:
- Black-eyed peas, lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas.
- Green peas.
- Oranges and citrus fruits.
- Peanuts and sunflower seeds.
- Spinach, Brussels sprouts, and other leafy green vegetables.
- Tomato and orange juice.
- Wheat germ.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 that’s found in multivitamins, prenatal, and other supplements. Food manufacturers also add folic acid to many grain-based foods during processing. Folic acid-enriched foods can include:
- Breakfast cereals
- White rice.
Methylfolate (5-MTHF) is another form of folic acid supplement. If you have a folic acid deficiency, your doctor may recommend that you take methylfolate. That’s because it’s an active form of vitamin B9 that’s easier for your body to metabolize and use.
Folic Acid Benefits
Folic acid plays many vital roles in your body. But it’s best known for preventing neural tube defects in a developing fetus.
Neural tube defects are birth defects affecting the brain, spine, or spinal cord. They can happen while a fetus’s brain and spinal cord form during the first few weeks of pregnancy.
Women who are low in folic acid have a much higher risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect like spina bifida. But getting at least 400 mcg of folic acid daily before conception and during early pregnancy can help prevent neural tube defects.
A neural tube defect can happen in unplanned pregnancies before you realize you’re pregnant. That’s why doctors recommend all women of childbearing age eat folate-rich foods and take a daily folic acid supplement.
Besides preventing neural tube defects, other proven and potential folic acid benefits include:
- It helps prevent and treat folate-deficiency anemia. Low folic acid levels can cause a type of anemia in which your red blood cells are abnormally large.
- It may help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke in people with high levels of a compound called homocysteine. Too much homocysteine increases your risk of heart disease, but folic acid helps lower homocysteine levels.
- Getting adequate folic acid during pregnancy might reduce the risk of autism spectrum disorder in your child.
- Some studies show it helps reduce depression symptoms when used with SSRI medicines in people with major depressive disorder.
- Studies also suggest that healthy folate levels might reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. People with low levels are at higher risk.
- It may protect you against certain types of cancer, like colon and breast cancer. People with healthy folate levels seem to have a lower cancer risk.
Should You Take a Folic Acid Supplement?
Most people who eat a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and enriched grains can get adequate folate from their diet. But if you don’t eat these foods daily, a folic acid supplement or a multivitamin with folic acid can cover any gaps.
You should also take a folic acid supplement if you:
- Are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy. A prenatal vitamin provides the extra folic acid you need during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Are in your childbearing years and could get pregnant. In the event of an unplanned pregnancy, you’ll reduce the risk of a neural tube defect.
- Have a health condition that causes problems absorbing vitamins and minerals, like celiac, Crohn’s, or ulcerative colitis.
- Have had weight loss surgery. Changes to your digestive tract can affect nutrient absorption, causing low levels of folic acid and other vitamins.
- Have alcohol use disorder. Alcohol affects how your body metabolizes folic acid. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause low folic acid levels.
- Have a genetic condition that prevents you from metabolizing folate and folic acid. A common variation in a gene prevents many people from converting the vitamin into its active form. Taking methylfolate (the active form) can help maintain healthy folate levels.
If these apply to you, ask your doctor about taking a folic acid supplement. They may do a blood test to check your levels. Your health care provider can also refer you to a dietitian who can help you identify more folate-rich foods to eat.
Can You Get Too Much Folic Acid?
You can’t get too much folate from food. But adults shouldn’t take more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid a day from supplements.
Taking higher amounts than this can make it harder for your doctor to identify a vitamin B12 deficiency. Low levels of vitamin B12 can cause nerve damage. Older adults and people who eat a vegan diet can develop a vitamin B12 deficiency, and excess folic acid hides the problem.
Folic acid supplements can also interact with some medications. Talk to your doctor before taking a supplement if you take these medications:
- Methotrexate to treat cancer or autoimmune diseases.
- Phenytoin, carbamazepine, and valproate for epilepsy or other medical conditions.
Getting enough vitamin B9 every day is essential. If you have questions about your diet or whether you need a supplement, ask your health care provider.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Folate. LINK
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Folate and Folic Acid on the Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels. LINK
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Folate (Folic Acid) Vitamin B9. LINK
Frontiers in Neuroscience. The Association Between Folate and Alzheimer's Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. LINK
Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Folate as Adjunct Therapy to SSRI/SNRI for Major Depressive Disorder: Systematic Review & Meta-Analysis. LINK
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