Folic acid, also known as folate, is a water soluble B vitamin that’s become well known for its importance during pregnancy, specifically for the prevention of neural tube defects in babies. It’s also been shown to reduce the risk of colon and cervical cancer as well as heart disease. However, new concern over excessive folic acid serve as a reminder that you can have too much of a good thing.
What is Folic Acid?
Folic acid is an enzyme that’s important for the synthesis of DNA and RNA as well as the metabolism of amino acids. Most folic acid is stored in the liver and the remainder is stored in the blood and tissues of the body. Men and women older than 19 require 400 mcg daily and that number increases to 600 mcg for pregnant women and 500 mcg for lactating women.
How Do I Get Enough Folic Acid?
Folic acid can be found in a wide variety of foods including:
- Black eyed peas
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Fortified rice
- Brussels sprouts
- Romaine lettuce
- Mustard greens
- Green peas
- Kidney beans
- Wheat germ
- Orange juice
- Baker’s yeast
However, many people supplement folic acid, including women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. In all, about 35 percent of adults and 28 percent of children use supplements that contain folic acid. While most of the population does get sufficient amounts of folic acid, certain population groups are at an increased risk of becoming deficient. Even when supplementation is included, 19 percent of female teenagers and 17 percent of women ages 19 to 30 are deficient.
Folic acid has a lot of important roles in the body. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that folate status was linked to the risk of developing colorectal, lung, pancreatic, esophageal, stomach, cervical, ovarian, breast, and other types of cancer. Another study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that low levels of folic acid were associated with lower cognitive function and a higher risk of dementia. Other research has linked consumption of folic acid with a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, depression and Alzheimer’s.
Are You Getting Too Much Folic Acid?
But while the benefits of folic acid are many, and protecting against deficiency is important for optimal health, research published in Nutrition Review shows that some people are getting too much folic acid which can also come with its share of problems. This is mostly a result of over supplementation.
Specifically, too much folic acid can mask serious B12 deficiencies, also known as megaloblastic anemia, which can be serious. The neurological implications of a B12 deficiency can be permanent if not dealt with early on. Some research has even shown that too much folic acid may exacerbate the anemia that’s linked to B12 deficiency.
A B12 deficiency is a big deal because the energy vitamin, as it’s known, helps make DNA, nerve and blood cells, as well as being crucial for a healthy brain and immune system. It’s found in animal products like meat, eggs, dairy, and shellfish. Since it comes from animal products, vegans and vegetarians are the most likely to be deficient. Heavy drinking can also impair the body’s ability to absorb the nutrient.
Symptoms of a deficiency include:
- Brain fog
- Memory loss
- Difficulty thinking and concentrating
- A red blood cell deficiency called pernicious anemia
Researchers aren’t sure whether it’s folic acid that’s making some B12 deficiencies worse or it’s that those with anemia already have extreme difficulty absorbing the nutrient. Based on these concerns the Food and Nutritional Board (FNB) at the National Academy of Sciences have established upper limit intakes for the synthetic form of folic acid. For those 19 years of age and older, that number is 1,000 mcg and it’s the same number for pregnant and lactating women. Additionally, breast milk, formula, and food should be the only sources of folic acid for infants.
A Word of Caution on Folic Acid Deficiency
If you’re pregnant or lactating, it’s particularly important that you get enough folic acid because a deficiency, as mentioned above, is directly linked to serious neural tube defects in your baby. You should start taking a prenatal vitamin at least three months before trying to get pregnant and then throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
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