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.

In addition to improving sperm quantity and quality, folic acid has been found to play a crucial role in addressing other aspects of male fertility. Research suggests that this essential nutrient can help enhance sperm motility, which refers to the ability of sperm to swim effectively towards the egg for fertilization. Adequate levels of folic acid have been linked to an increase in the percentage of motile sperm, ultimately improving the chances of successful conception.

Furthermore, folic acid supplementation has shown promising results in improving sperm morphology, which refers to the shape and structure of sperm cells. Abnormal sperm morphology is known to be one of the leading causes of infertility in men. By taking folic acid, men experiencing this issue may observe a notable improvement in the normality and structural integrity of their sperm, enhancing the likelihood of successful fertilisation.

Moreover, folic acid has been associated with a decrease in DNA damage in sperm cells. Sperm with damaged DNA can lead to various fertility issues, including failed fertilization, miscarriages, and genetic abnormalities in offspring. By taking folic acid supplements, men may experience a reduction in DNA fragmentation, resulting in healthier and more viable sperm, ultimately improving fertility outcomes.

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, even if you have a healthy balanced diet. 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.

It is important to note that while folic acid is generally safe for consumption, taking extremely high doses of folic acid can have negative effects. The upper limit for folic acid intake for adults is set at 1,000 micrograms (mcg) per day. Taking excessively high doses of folic acid can mask vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to nerve damage if left untreated. Additionally, taking high doses of folic acid may interact negatively with certain medications, such as antiepileptic drugs.

Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking other medications. They can provide personalized recommendations for your specific needs and help you determine the appropriate dosage of folic acid.

In conclusion, folic acid is not just for pregnant women. It plays a crucial role in various aspects of health, including preventing birth defects, reducing the risk of heart disease, potentially preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and improving male fertility. While it is possible to obtain folic acid from food sources, it can be challenging to meet the recommended daily intake through diet alone. Therefore, taking a multivitamin or prenatal supplement that contains the appropriate amount of folic acid is often the most effective and convenient way to ensure adequate intake. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional for personalised guidance and recommendations.

Photo by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

This post was originally published in 2017. It was last updated in June 2023.

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