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What is Folic Acid, and Why is it Important?

Written by LVMC on in Health & Wellness

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps support the growth of new cells. It can also help a woman reduce her likelihood of having a child with a serious congenital disability.

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps support the growth of new cells. It can also help a woman reduce her likelihood of having a child with a serious congenital disability.

Did you know that folic acid is an essential nutrient, especially when it comes to pregnancy and supporting the growth of a developing baby? Folic acid is also important for other reasons too outside of pregnancy.

For one week each September, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network celebrates National Folic Acid Awareness Week. This year, the week of celebration is September 12-18.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are invested in supporting all of our patients and helping them live healthy, full life. We are particularly devoted to helping our female patients enjoy safe and successful pregnancies. Here is what you need to know about folic acid and why it is important.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is a B-vitamin that your body uses as an ingredient to make new cells. You may also see folic acid described as “folate,” “methylfolate,” or “L-methylfolate.” When a person does not have enough folic acid in their diet, it can cause problems.

What Does Folic Acid Do?

Folic acid helps your cells grow normally. Women, men, and children of all ages need to have enough folic acid in their daily diet. Folic acid helps support the health of constantly growing cells, such as in your skin, hair, and nails.

Because it is a “pro-growth” vitamin, folic acid receives the most attention when it comes to pregnancy and preparing for a pregnancy. This is because folic acid is essential early on in developing a fetus inside a mother’s womb. Some experts believe that taking folic acid before and during pregnancy can reduce the chance of a mother having a baby with a serious congenital disability by up to 70%.

How Much Folic Acid Should You Take?

Experts recommend that adults take 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day. For women who are of childbearing age, getting this amount consistently is especially important. Some prenatal vitamins have an increased dose of folic acid to ensure that women who intend to become pregnant have enough stores in their bodies when they become pregnant. Experts also recommend that women who have had a child with a previous congenital disability take a higher dose of folic acid – if you are in this situation, make sure to check in with your medical provider about how much folic acid you should be taking to plan for your next pregnancy.

When to Start Taking Folic Acid

In general, adults should eat a balanced diet and take a multivitamin daily. These steps will help make sure that you are getting enough folic acid to support your health.

Because folic acid is involved in the very early stages of growth in pregnancy, it is important that women who are planning a pregnancy begin taking an increased dose before they get pregnant—at least one month before they start trying to have a baby.

What Happens When You Don’t Have Enough Folic Acid?

When pregnant women do not get enough folic acid, their babies are at risk of suffering a congenital disability known as a neural tube defect. The neural tube (which will become the future brain and spinal cord) develops very early in a pregnancy, between days 26 and 28 (when a woman is about 6 weeks pregnant). Many women do not know that they are pregnant at this early stage, which is why they need to begin taking folic acid before they even learn that they are pregnant.

A neural tube defect is a problem in the brain and spine. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the two most common types of neural tube defects are known as spina bifida (a problem that occurs in the spine) and anencephaly (a problem that occurs in the brain).

Although folic acid deficiencies in the United States are rare, they can cause anemia (low blood count), weakness, tiredness, numbness, and mouth sores.

Is Folic Acid Found in Food?

Quite simply, yes. Folic acid is found in various foods that you eat every day, including leafy green vegetables and fruits. Here is a partial list of the foods that have a high folic acid content:

  • Beef liver
  • Spinach
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Avocado
  • Broccoli
  • Mustard greens
  • Green beans
  • Tomato juice
  • Crab
  • Oranges
  • Peanuts
  • Banana

When was the last time you checked the nutrition label on your cereal box? You might be surprised to see folic acid listed as an ingredient. However, in the United States, folic acid (or folate) has been added to certain foods since 1988.

These folate-enriched foods include:

  • Enriched bread
  • Cereals
  • Flours
  • Cornmeal
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Other grain products

Adding folic acid to these foods helps improve the nutritional value of some of the most common staples in the American diet. However, the true goal is to help reduce the chances of a pregnant woman having a baby with congenital disabilities.

What Are Health Problems Related to Folic Acid?

Most people can get all of the folic acids they need from their diet without being too intentional about what specific things they are eating. However, some health conditions decrease the amount of folic acid that your body has available to make new cells.

The health conditions that can reduce your supply of folic acid include:

  • Pregnancy (a pregnant woman’s body requires a higher amount of daily folic acid)
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Dialysis treatments
  • Genetic enzyme problems (such as an MTHFR deficiency)
  • Digestive conditions that can make it hard for your body to absorb folic acids, such as celiac disease, short bowel syndrome, or a history of a gastric bypass procedure
  • Taking certain medications that interfere with your body’s ability to use folic acids, such as methotrexate, phenytoin, or sulfasalazine

If you have one of these health conditions, ask your medical provider about your folic acid requirements, especially if you are a woman planning on getting pregnant. Your medical provider may recommend that you take a different amount of folic acid than the standard suggested dose of 400mcg.

How to Check Your Folic Acid Level

Usually, a medical provider doesn't need to check your folic acid level. Keeping up to date with the standard dietary recommendation should ensure that you are on the right track.

However, if you have symptoms such as numbness or tingling, or unexplained tiredness, your medical provider might check a blood test to see if a low folate level is a cause. This might be especially useful if you have a medical condition that makes it more likely for you to have a folate deficiency or take a medication that interferes with your body’s ability to use folate.

How to Get More Folic Acid?

Even though folic acid is added to many common foods, such as cereal, if you are a woman of childbearing age, pregnant, or have a medical condition that might decrease your folate level, your medical provider may recommend a folic acid supplement.

Folic acid is available in many multivitamin supplements, as well as prenatal vitamins. You can also take a folic acid supplement on its own. If your medical provider has found that you have a problem digesting folic acid (which is usually due to a genetic condition related to the enzymes that break down folic acid), then you can take a different form of folic acid that will be easier for your body to use, such as methylfolate.

What Are Other Types of Vitamins Related to Folic Acid?

Folic acid is one of the essential B-vitamins that are important for many body processes, including creating new cells. However, other important vitamins tend to be associated with folic acid. If you have a deficiency in one of these vitamins, you may be more likely to have a folic acid deficiency, too.

One of the vitamins that are most commonly linked with folic acid is vitamin B12. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause the same type of anemia (low blood count) condition as a folic acid deficiency and some of the same symptoms—such as tiredness, weakness, and numbness of the fingers and toes.

How to Celebrate Folic Acid Awareness Week

If you are passionate about spreading awareness about the importance of folic acid, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network has many resources that can help. They even have sample posts that you can share on social media as you participate in this important public health awareness campaign.

How to Learn More About Folic Acid and Nutrition During Pregnancy

Folic acid is an essential part of a healthy diet, particularly if you or someone you love is planning on becoming pregnant or is currently pregnant.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our medical providers support women before, during, and after their pregnancy journey—and they help the whole family, too.

If you have questions about folic acid or would like to start taking this vitamin, make sure to contact us to schedule an appointment today.

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Author: LVMC, Editorial Staff

Our experts in healthcare often discuss the latest topics in health and wellness and share them for the Lompoc community.