3 Surprising Benefits of Folic Acid

Folic acid is most commonly known as an important health supplement for women that are having a baby. It’s abilities to help prevent birth defects are widely known.

But it’s not just for pregnant women!

Folic acid or folate when it appears naturally in food, is a B vitamin and you probably already eat them in your diet. Folic acid is included to fortify some breads and breakfast cereals.

Even though women have long known the value of folic acid during pregnancy, new research is showing that it might be just as important for men.

Why Should I Take Folic Acid?

For women who are pregnant, taking folic acid protects the fetus from getting neural tube defects (N.T.D.) of which spina bifida is the most common. If a baby’s spine doesn’t develop properly, a split or gap can develop resulting in spina bifida. Spina bifida, depending on the type can result in a stillborn baby, a baby that dies right after birth or a baby with disabilities.

Because of the baby’s spine early development, the pregnant woman should begin taking folic acid immediately after she stops using contraception up until week 12 of the pregnancy. By the 12th week of pregnancy the baby’s spine would be fully developed, so taking folic acid won’t be necessary, however you should still stick to a balanced healthy diet.

Helps Prevent Heart Disease

Folic acid also reduces the homocysteine levels in the blood. Increased stroke and heart disease are linked to having high levels of homocysteine in the blood. This is a fairly widespread disease among males; therefore extra folic acid will be beneficial to both males and females.

Folate forms a coenzyme with vitamin B12 which helps with the metabolism of some amino acids like methonine and homocysteine. If there is insufficient folic acid in the body, the resulting increase in homocysteine levels can affect cardiovascular disease. Studies indicate that using a folic acid supplement can lower homocysteine levels, but they have not conclusively shown that the folic acid supplements will lower the chances of developing cardiovascular disease.

Helps to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

A University of California at Irvine study in 2005 indicated that an adequate amount of folic acid could aid in fighting off Alzheimer’s disease. There were 579 women and men ages 60 + in the study, which found that participants who took the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of folic acid – 400 micrograms (mcg) by either food or supplement, reduced their chances of getting Alzheimer’s by over 50 percent. Other studies have supported the findings in the 2005 study that indicate folic acid performs a critical role in preventing general memory loss which usually develops at an older age.

Helps with Male Fertility

Recent studies indicate that males who have a deficiency in folic acid can have a sperm count reduction of 90%. Males who are suffering from partial infertility who take folic acid have noticed an increase in sperm quantity and quality.

Can I Get Folic Acid from Food?

You can get folic acid from food but it can be difficult to get the required amount from food alone. The following foods contain the natural form of folic acid (folate) – spinach, lentils, peanuts, black beans, orange juice, broccoli, and romaine lettuce. You would have to consume large quantities of these foods to get the proper amount of folic acid. Fortified grains such as breakfast cereal, pasta and bread have added folic acid. “Fortified” indicates that the folic acid was added to these food sources. To see how much folic acid is contained in each serving, look at the product label.

A multivitamin is the best way to get the proper amount of folic acid daily. For women there are special prenatal vitamins. Women who are not pregnant yet should take a multivitamin that has 400 mcg for folic acid daily. When they do become pregnant, the amount should be increased to 600 mcg daily.

What If I Didn’t Take Folic Acid Before Pregnancy?

Your baby won’t necessarily develop birth defects if you weren’t taking folic acid before conception. But it is proven that folic acid can reduce the chances of developing certain kinds of birth defects. The folic acid is most effective if it is taken before and at the beginning of pregnancy, usually even prior to a woman knowing that she is pregnant.

Given that almost 50% of pregnancies are not planned, women who are in the childbearing age range should take a minimum of 400 mcg of folic acid daily, even if they are not attempting to get pregnant. If a woman was taking 400 mcg before pregnancy, that should be increased to 600 mcg during pregnancy by taking a prenatal vitamin.

Can I Take Too Much Folic Acid?

Folic acid is water soluble, therefore the body can easily get rid of any extra amount which means that excess amounts will not harm you or your baby.

Photo Credit: “calabrese” (CC BY 2.0) by ali graney

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2015.