Folic Acid

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Folic Acid is a B vitamin, specifically B9. It is an essential nutrient required by the body to create healthy new cells. While we hear about it mostly in regards to pregnancy, it is important to understand that the need for folic acid goes even beyond this. Folic acid is essential for the body to create red blood cells which in turn prevents anemia. It is also plays an important role in the metabolism of homocysteine, an amino acid. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for all men and women 14 and older is 400 mcg. Men often don’t realize this as the benefits to pregnant women are more publicized, but any human being is in need of proper amounts of folic acid to insure the body is able to create new red blood cells to nourish the body with oxygen. The recommendation is to either get this amount by using a dietary supplement or eating foods fortified with folic acid. Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate and appears to be absorbed by the body (also known as bioavailable) much better than the folate occurring naturally in food. One mcg of food folate (also called 1 DFE - Dietary Folate Equivalent) is equal to 0.6 mcg of synthetic folic acid. This means that to meet the RDA from food alone, a woman or man would have to eat food naturally containing about 667 mcg per day (400/0.6 ) which might prove difficult. Folic Acid is especially important to pregnant women. Women that have sufficient Folic Acid in their diet before and after they conceive, have a 50-70% less chance of having a baby with a brain or spine defect such as spina bifida or anencephaly .(1) Because of this the recommended dietary allowance for pregnant women is higher than for a woman that is not pregnant. The RDA for pregnant women is 600 mcg as opposed to 400 mcg. Any woman of childbearing age should be taking between 400 mcg - 600 mcg per day as about half of all pregnancies are unplanned. If a woman does not start supplementation until she is pregnant she has already lost some of the benefits, though starting it as soon as possible is still better than continuing with no supplementation. After her child is born she should continue supplementing as the RDA is 500 mcg during lactation. By consuming adequate folic acid while breastfeeding, a woman is providing her child with folic acid through her breast milk while still having enough to nourish her own body. There is continued study into other possible benefits of folic acid. One area of study is whether folic acid aids in prevention of heart disease. The studies have specifically looked at the amino acid homocysteine. Folic acid is known to break down homocysteine in the body. High levels of homocysteine in the blood are related to a higher risk of heart disease, but this hasn’t conclusively been shown to be a cause of heart disease. Because of the lack of evidence the American Heart Association (AHA) is not at this time considering hyperhomocysteinemia (too much homocystein) a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. AHA’s recommendation is to try and get the recommended allowance from fruits, vegetables and fat free or low fat dairy products. They say that supplements should only be used when the diet does not supply enough. Evidence is clear for folic acid supplementation reducing homocystein levels but is still lacking on whether homocystein will lower risk for cardiovascular disease. (2) Another area of study is folic acid’s role in reducing risk of certain forms of cancer. Low levels of folic acid in the blood have been linked to colon cancer, but it is too early to say if folic acid supplements can reduce risk of colon cancer. Other cancers that have been studied in relation to folic acid are breast, ovarian, pancreatic, esophageal, and stomach. Some have shown benefits to supplementation, but the results were not reproduced in subsequent studies, so at this time there is no recommendation for supplementation of folic acid to reduce risk of cancer. The American...
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