The first time you heard about folate, was it in the context of preparing for a healthy pregnancy? For many women, the first time they become aware of the importance of folate is the moment they consult with their prenatal specialist. For women of childbearing age, the recommended daily amount of folic acid is 400 micrograms. This is the amount that is generally provided in most daily multivitamins. However, when a woman confirms pregnancy, that amount is generally increased from 600 to 800 micrograms, which is found in most prenatal vitamins.
Unlike other vitamins, it is possible to get ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to folic acid. The amount depends on health conditions, dietary and supplemental nutrient intake, age and pre-existing medical conditions that can impact absorption. We’ll talk about the benefits of folic acid, and some of the risks associated with consuming more than 1,000 micrograms a day.
Why Does Your Body Need Folate?
Folate is part of the vitamin B family, and it is present in many dietary sources. Folic acid (an easy to absorb form of folate) is the vitamin found in dietary supplements and most fortified foods. At the cellular level, folate performs some important jobs, including the production of DNA and other genetic materials. It is also a requirement needed for cellular division. Depending on your age, health and lifestyle habits, folate may present other health benefits for you. Young women under the age of thirty-years, should be taking folate if they plan to become pregnant. Individuals who have nutrient absorption disorders like celiac disease, or IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) also benefit from supplementing folate, on a daily basis.
Therapeutically, folate is also used to counteract the toxic effects of alcoholism on peripheral nerves. Alcoholic polyneuropathy can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, and alcohol dependent individuals can suffer the effects of malnourishment, while alcoholism puts increased strain and metabolic demand for tissue repair. Many physicians place patients who are undergoing alcohol recovery programs, on a supplement program that includes the vitamin B family, and folate.
In other therapeutic studies, folic acid and folate were found to offer benefit to individuals with chronic and severe depression. This is not new however, as researchers first began to draw a link between improved absorption of anti-depressant medications when folate levels were regulated in the patient. Throughout history, antipsychotic medications were administered along with anti-depressants, to improve absorption, but the use of L-methylfolate supplements were reported in several studies, to be equally if not more effective. Folate is also tolerated well and inexpensive, compared to psychotropic medications.
What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Folic Acid? Symptoms and Side Effects
Vitamins are an essential aspect of balanced nutrition, and personal wellness. Folate (or vitamin B-9) deficiency is the number one cause of anemia, which can deprive the body, tissues and organs of oxygen. Without folate, red blood cells cannot carry oxygen efficiently throughout the body. Fatigue, premature graying of the hair, mouth sores and tongue swelling are also signs of folate deficiency. In children, growth may be delayed or permanently limited when folate levels are low. Patients who are deprived of B-9 can also experience mood swings and irritability, general lethargy and persistent fatigue, weakness, and pale skin.
It’s Easier Than You Think to Get More Than You Need
If you are taking a high-quality multivitamin, and enjoying regular servings of high folate foods, you may not need a separate folic acid supplement.
Highly fortified nutritious cereals, that are designed for controlled diets and high-performance lifestyles, can have dangerously high levels of folic acid. If your multivitamin offers the minimum requirement of 400 micrograms, even a small serving of fortified cereals can add another 400 micrograms of daily intake. Add something else to your day, such as an energy drink, or meal replacement shake or bar, and you can easily consume more than 1,000 micrograms a day.
Some studies have suggested that a sustained daily consumption of more than 1,000 micrograms of folate, can increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Folate supplementation is frequently used to help patients recover from chemotherapy, but the combination of fortified foods and supplements, have resulted in an increased risk of chronic diseases. Researchers reported that excessive folate may interfere with the homeostasis of one-carbon metabolism (FOCM), which can increase free radicals and cellular damage; a strong precursor to the development of cancer.
Tasty and Affordable Dietary Sources of Folate
Lentils are the highest source of folate or folic acid, and provide up to 90% of the recommended daily requirement in a single 1-cup serving. Dark leafy greens like spinach, provide up to 65% of the RDA of folate per 1-cup serving. Collard greens, romaine lettuce, turnip greens and mustard greens are all delicious ways to make your salad more interesting, and hit your RDA targets for dietary folate, every day. Snack on one cup of almonds, and enjoy 12% of your RDA of folate (and protein and omega fats). Flax seeds can be easily added into smoothies, sauces or servings of cereal, and 2 teaspoons of flax provide 14% of your recommended daily average for folate.
Nutritional scientist, Carlie Frydman in Denver Colorado, shares five delicious recipes that you can try, which are high in dietary folate. Check out her blog for some healthy meal ideas!