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Folate/Folic Acid: What You Need to Know

Health & Wellness
Last Updated Nov 20, 2020


Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin that is found naturally in food.  Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic form of folate that can be found in supplements and is added to fortified foods.  But what exactly is folate?

What does Folate Do?

Folate helps to produce and maintain new cells.  This is especially vital during periods of rapid cell division and growth, such as in infancy or during pregnancy.  Folate is also required to make DNA and RNA, which are the building blocks of cells, and it can help to prevent changes to the DNA that may lead to cancer.  Adults and children need folate in order to make normal red blood cells and prevent anaemia.  In addition, folate is important for the metabolism of homocysteine, and it helps to maintain normal levels of this amino acid in the body.

Where is Folate Found?

Folate can be found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans, and peas.  It is also found in fortified cereals, orange juice, broccoli, cauliflower, baked beans, lentils, peanuts, and fortified breads.  You can also take folic acid supplements if your dietary intake is insufficient.

Pregnancy and Folate

Folate is important for any woman who is pregnant or planning to get pregnant.  In fact, because many pregnancies are unplanned, it is advised that a woman follow a folate rich diet through her childbearing years.  Within the first 17 to 30 days of pregnancy, the baby's neural tube is formed and closes.  The neural tube becomes the spine and the brain of the baby.  However, sometimes the tube does not close properly and the spinal cord is exposed to amniotic fluids, which results in spina bifida or anencephaly.  These conditions are known as neural tube defects.  Taking folate daily greatly decreases the risks of these neural tube defects occurring.  Taking folate in pregnancy also reduces the risk of cleft palates and cleft lips by 25 to 50 percent.

Other Uses for Folate

Taking folate can reduce the levels of homocysteine in the blood.  High levels of homocysteine can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.  Researchers have also found that up to 38 percent of depressed people in a study had very low levels of folate.  Using folate as a therapy, these people noticed improvements within six weeks.

Folate Deficiencies

There are some medical conditions that increase the body's need for folate, or result in the body excreting more folate.  These include pregnancy and lactation, alcohol abuse, malabsorption, kidney dialysis, liver disease, and certain types of anaemia.  Some medications will also affect folate levels in the body such as anti-convulsants, Metformin, sulfasalazine, triamterene, methotroxate, and barbiturates.

Signs and symptoms of folate deficiency include:

  • giving birth to low birth weight, premature, and/or infants with neural tube defects
  • in infants and children, low levels of folate can slow their overall growth rate
  • a particular type of anaemia may occur in adults
  • subtle signs such as:
    • digestive disorders including diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss
    • weakness
    • sore tongue
    • headaches
    • heart palpitations
    • irritability
    • forgetfulness
    • behavioural disorders
Originally published on Jul 24, 2008

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