Folic Acid (Folate)

Definition: a water-soluble vitamin of the B-complex group.

Alternative Name: Vitamin B9.

Function: Folic acid acts as a coenzyme (with vitamin B-12 and vitamin C) in the breakdown (metabolism) of proteins and in the synthesis of new proteins. It is necessary for the production of red blood cells and the synthesis of DNA (which controls heredity), as well as tissue growth and cell function. It also increases the appetite and stimulates the formation of digestive acids.

Synthetic folic acid supplements may be used in the treatment of disorders associated with folic acid deficiency, and may also be part of the recommended treatment for certain menstrual problems and leg ulcers. Most people in the United States have an adequate dietary intake of folic acid because it is plentiful in the food supply.

Pregnant women often require additional supplementation as prescribed by the health care provider. Adequate folic acid is important to women in their childbearing years because it has been shown to prevent some kinds of birth defects, including neural tube defects. Women in this age group should make an effort to consume foods that are good sources of folic acid. Recent studies published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that women who receive supplements of folic acid BEFORE CONCEPTION may reduce the risk for neural tube defects by 50%. Women who plan to become pregnant may want to discuss taking a multivitamin with their health care provider. Specific recommendations for each vitamin depends on age, gender, and other factors (such as pregnancy).

Why Folic Acid is So Important

Folic acid is a B vitamin. It is used in our bodies to make new cells. If a woman has enough folic acid in her body before she is pregnant, it can help prevent major birth defects of her baby's brain and spine. These birth defects are called neural tube defects or NTDs. Women need to take folic acid every day starting before they are pregnant to help prevent NTDs.

What is Folic Acid?

As a woman, you need folic acid every day, whether you're planning to get pregnant or not, for the healthy new cells your body makes daily. Think about your skin, hair, and nails. Theseand other parts of your body make new cells each day. You might think that you can get all the folic acid and other vitamins you need from the food you eat each day. But it is hard to eat a diet that has all the nutrients you need every day. Even with careful planning, you might not get all the vitamins you need from your diet alone. That's why it's important to take a vitamin with folic acid every day.

Today's woman is busy. You know that you should exercise, eat right, and get enough sleep. You might wonder how you can fit another thing into your day. But it only takes a few seconds to take a vitamin to get all the folic acid you need. Make it easy to remember. Try taking a vitamin when you brush your teeth. Or take it with your morning coffee, after your shower, or when you brush your hair. Seeing the vitamin bottle on the bathroom or kitchen counter can help you remember it, too. If you have children, take your vitamin when they take theirs.

Focus on Folic Acid Benefits, by Deborah Condon, 27/09/2004

A new study has confirmed that adding folic acid to food can dramatically reduce the incidence of spina bifida and other birth defects. Around seven babies born in Ireland every month have spina bifida or other neural tube defects (NTDs). Up to 50% of these babies die around the time of their birth and most of the survivors are left severely disabled. However research has shown that folic acid, when taken by expectant mothers, can reduce the risk of a baby being born with an NTD. In fact, even women who are trying to conceive are recommended to take it.

This latest study looked at the situation in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, where in 1998, the Canadian government introduced the mandatory fortification of some foods, including flour and pasta, with folic acid. The aim of this move was to ensure that all women of childbearing age increased their intake of the B-group vitamin. The researchers found that following this food fortification, women on average were taking in an additional 70 micrograms of folic acid per day. Furthermore the incidence of NTDs in the province dropped form an average of 4.36 defects per 1,000 births between 1991 and 1997 (prior to fortification), to an average of 0.96 defects per 1,000 births between 1998 and 2001.

According to the researchers, prior to the move, this Canadian province had one of the highest rates of NTDs in Canada and North America. Not surprisingly, the study supports the continuation of this food fortification strategy.

Details of this study are published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. The Department of Health here recommends that every woman in Ireland who is planning to become pregnant should take an extra 400 micrograms of folic acid daily prior to conception and throughout the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

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