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What is folic acid (folate)?

Folic acid is an increasingly important supplement, and not just during pregnancy. But with several variations of folic acid, and numerous terms to learn, it isn't easy knowing where to start. Keep reading to find out what you need to know about folate, folic acid, and vitamin B.

What exactly is folate?

Folate, the naturally occurring form of folic acid, is present in dozens of foods. An essential B vitamin, sufficient folate levels are linked with several crucial functions, including pregnancy and the creation of DNA and red blood cells.[1]

The body already does a great job of absorbing folate from food sources, so a deficiency in people with a balanced diet is rare. The abundance of naturally occurring folate also reduces the need for supplementation, but as we'll find out shortly, there are several use cases for folate-enriched products.

In fact, given just how important folate is to physical and mental well-being, it's crucial you know exactly how the compound functions, the differences between folate and folic acid, and, most importantly, how to spot a folate (vitamin B9) deficiency.

The difference between folate and folic acid

While both folate and folic acid are forms of vitamin B9, subtle differences separate the two compounds.

Folate

Folate is a naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 found in many leafy greens. Because folate is water-soluble, the body breaks it down quickly, and it doesn't get stored in fat cells. This makes regular consumption a must if you want to keep levels of B9 balanced. Inside the body, vitamin B9 is broken down into its biologically active form, 5-MTHF.

Folic acid

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate found inside fortified food products and supplements. While both folate and folic acid perform the same role, the body has to work slightly harder to convert folic acid into 5-MTHF, and the slow metabolism can cause issues with folic acid saturation.[2]

Folate deficiency

As we've pointed out, most balanced diets provide plenty of folate, making a deficiency rare. However, there are select cases in which the body has difficulty processing and absorbing folate, including:

• Eating disorders
• Gene mutations (specifically MTHFR gene)
• Alcohol use disorder
• Underlying autoimmune disease (inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease)

Even if you don't have one of the conditions listed above, it only takes a few weeks of low folate intake for signs of a deficiency to show. As such, it's crucial to keep an eye out for symptoms such as:

• Mouth ulcers/sore tongue
• Depression
• Fatigue
• Confusion and problems with memory
• Muscle weakness

Because vitamin B9 also plays a crucial role in producing healthy red blood cells, in worst-case scenarios, a deficiency can also lead to megaloblastic anaemia. Moreover, during pregnancy, low folate levels can lead to defects in the neural tube.[3]

Why vitamin B9 is essential

We've outlined the issues that can occur from too little folate, but what are the benefits of keeping levels balanced? As you will see from the research below, vitamin B plays a pivotal role in many essential functions.

Vitamin B9 and birth defects

Folic acid supplements are among the few vitamins strongly recommended during pregnancy, regardless of specific circumstances. The reason for this is the compound's links to preventing congenital disabilities, including neural tube defects and spina bifida.[4]

According to a 2011 review, vitamin B9 is essential for "DNA replication and as a substrate for a range of enzymatic reactions". Moreover, many of these processes significantly increase their demands during pregnancy.

The paper also outlines that "folate deficiency has been associated with abnormalities in both mothers and fetuses", adding that "folic acid supplementation protects against fetal structural anomalies, including NTD [neural tube defects] and congenital heart defects".

Vitamin B9 and DNA

The influence of folate on DNA synthesis and repair is fascinating because it could have far-reaching implications for disease management. So far, most of the evidence comes from in-vitro studies, with limited data from animal models.[5]

That said, researchers identified "convincing evidence that folate modulates both DNA synthesis and repair and DNA hypomethylation". And while the results appear more skewed in humans and animals (because of the complexity of gene expression), "it is believed that folate deficiency affects DNA stability" and could lead to many types of cancer.[6]

Vitamin B9 and heart health

Hyperhomocysteinemia is a condition caused by a buildup of homocysteine, a naturally occurring amino acid. Moreover, it's believed that excess homocysteine levels may also contribute to heart disease.[7]

While researchers aren't entirely sure why this occurs, they have found nutritional deficiencies to be one of the determining factors in hyperhomocysteinemia. With that in mind, "physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, good folate and vitamin B12 status" may help lower homocysteine levels.

How to take folic acid

Given how pivotal folate can be in promoting well-being, it's important to know which foods contain the most significant amounts. The good news is there's a broad selection of folate-infused foods to choose from, and for most people, a varied diet will fulfil all of their folate needs.

Nearly all of our folate intake comes from the following foods:

• Dark green, leafy vegetables
• Fresh fruits and fruit juices
• Sunflower seeds
• Whole grains
• Seafood
• Beans
• Liver
• Eggs
• Asparagus
• Fortified cereals
• Peanuts

Given the abundance of natural food sources, it's rare for people to need folic acid supplements. However, if you are pregnant or suffer from any of the conditions mentioned earlier, then a combination of folate and folic acid can help to keep levels topped up.

How to dose folic acid

The key with any vitamin or mineral, regardless of its influence on human health, is a balanced approach to consumption. While low levels of vitamin B9 can cause severe health problems, excessive intake can mask just as many problems as it solves.

With that in mind, the recommended daily allowances are as follows:

• Adult male (19+ years): 400mcg
• Adult female (19+ years): 400–800mcg
• Pregnant women: 600mcg

As for an upper tolerance, most evidence suggests that 1mg per day is the maximum tolerable level, although this figure increases if you have certain underlying health conditions. Of course, the figures highlighted above are merely guidelines. If you think you need to increase your vitamin B9 intake, we advise consulting with a doctor or physician for case-specific advice.

Are folic acid supplements safe?

Folate occurs naturally in numerous foods, meaning our body is used to consuming the vitamin regularly. While it's unlikely you’ll experience adverse effects from habitual folate intake, folic acid supplements can produce potential side effects, such as:

• Nausea and loss of appetite
• Disturbed sleep
• Irritability or confusion
• Bad taste in the mouth

There's also a chance that people with allergies will react negatively to folic acid. If you take supplements and experience a skin rash, itching, or redness, cease use immediately, and seek advice from a doctor or physician.

As with any supplement, you should start with a lower-than-recommended dose, then gradually build your intake to see how your body responds. Also, you should always buy folic supplements from a reputable manufacturer to limit the risk of unwanted elements or poor-quality formulas.

If you’re looking to boost vitamin B9 levels, why not try high-quality folic acid from the Cibdol store? Or, to learn more about the role of vitamins and minerals in balanced well-being, visit our CBD Encyclopedia.

Folate: Frequently Asked Questions

What is folic acid used for?
Many people use folic acid to promote general well-being, to address a folate deficiency, or to encourage a healthy pregnancy.
Which foods contain folic acid?
Folic acid is present in fortified pasta, cereal, and grain products. Natural sources of folate include dark leafy greens, peanuts, fresh citrus fruit, and beef liver.
How much folic acid helps with pregnancy?
If you're pregnant (up to 12 weeks) or planning to get pregnant, the recommended daily allowance of folic acid is 400–600mcg.
Should you take folic acid in the morning or at night?
Morning or lunchtime is preferable, as taking folic acid with water and a meal, earlier in the day, reduces the risk of an upset stomach and acid reflux.
Sources

[1] Office of dietary supplements - folate. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-Consumer/. Published 2021. Accessed May 24, 2022. [Source]

[2] PM; WAJDJRF. Folic acid metabolism in human subjects revisited: Potential implications for proposed mandatory folic acid fortification in the UK. The British journal of nutrition. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17617936/. Published 2007. Accessed May 23, 2022. [Source]

[3] Khan K, Jialal I. Folic acid deficiency - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535377/. Published 2022. Accessed May 23, 2022. [Source]

[4] Greenberg JA, Bell SJ, Guan Y, Yu Y-H. Folic acid supplementation and pregnancy: More than just neural tube defect prevention. Reviews in obstetrics & gynecology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3218540/. Published 2011. Accessed May 24, 2022. [Source]

[5] Duthie SJ;Narayanan S;Brand GM;Pirie L;Grant G; S. Impact of folate deficiency on DNA stability. The Journal of nutrition. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12163709/. Published 2002. Accessed May 24, 2022. [Source]

[6] Yao Y, Dai W. Genomic instability and cancer. Journal of carcinogenesis & mutagenesis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4274643/. Published 2014. Accessed May 24, 2022. [Source]

[7] Ganguly P, Alam SF. Role of homocysteine in the development of cardiovascular disease. Nutrition journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4326479/. Published January 10, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2022. [Source]

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