FOLIC acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin (B-9) found in our diet as a byproduct of bacteria living in our intestines, and in vitamin supplements. Deficiency of folate in a pregnant mother increases the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) in her child.
The neural tube begins development about two weeks after conception, and over time forms the brain, spine, skull and spinal cord. Inadequate closure of the neural tube results in birth defects, with the two most common NTDs being spinal deformity (spina bifida) and anencephaly (no brain).
Folic acid is required for DNA synthesis and is essential for development of the embryo, particularly during the first three months of pregnancy. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, adequate amounts of folic acid beginning one month before pregnancy and continuing throughout the first trimester of pregnancy can reduce the incidence of NTDs by 60-70%. There is some evidence that adequate folic acid intake can also reduce the incidence of cleft lip and palate, congenital heart disease and learning disabilities.
WHETHER you’re courting pregnancy or not, the time to think about adequate intake of folic acid for both men and women is now. Deficiency of folate can precipitate excess blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine, a known risk factor for heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer.
According to Godfrey Oakley, Jr., director of the division of birth defects and developmental disabilities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, research findings indicate that adequate folate intake could prevent approximately 50,000 deaths from heart attack each year in the United States. Folate deficiency increases the risk of colon and cervical cancer, and reduces the body’s supply of a protein known as p53, a potent ingredient of our own built-in anticancer defense system.
Folic acid is nontoxic, and the recommended daily intake is 400 micrograms. It is possible to consume this amount of folate if you are careful to maintain a healthy diet that includes up to five servings daily of vegetables and fruit, especially if you emphasize dark green, leafy vegetables. Legumes are also a good source of folic acid. Keep in mind that stress and disease will increase the body’s need for folate, as will consumption of alcohol.
PACKAGED food lists the amount of folate per serving, with breakfast cereals often fortified up to 400 micrograms per serving. Physicians usually recommend 400-800 micrograms, or 0.4-0.8 milligrams, of folate for women planning on pregnancy to ensure the health of mother and baby. The therapeutic range of folate to treat various illnesses ranges from 400-2,000 micrograms.
The only concern with a daily supplemental intake of folate in excess of 1,000 micrograms is that it could mask the existence of B-12 deficiency anemia on lab tests. B-12 anemia is generally a concern for the elderly population. Supplement suppliers often add B-12 to folate to avoid this possibility. Vitamin B-12 is also a safe, nontoxic nutrient and has many of the properties of folate.
The story of folic acid is an excellent example of how contemporary science is corroborating the wisdom and merit of sound lifestyle decisions, such as eating a variety of food in as close to its natural state as possible.
Jon Dunn is a naturopathic physician living in Nosara, on the northern Pacific coast. E-mail questions or comments to [email protected], or visit www.drjondunn.com.