What is Folic Acid (Vitamin B9) and why is it important?

Folic acid, Vitamin B9, is a water-soluble and synthetic (artificial) vitamin that one can consume through health supplements and folate foods. Folic acid is an artificial version of folate but is naturally found in many foods. Because your body can make folate on its own, you can get it through food/supplements. 

Folic acid and folate are often used interchangeably, but one needs to understand that these two are distinct. Folic acid is synthetic (artificial) and has a slightly different structure than naturally found folate. Plant foods where you can find folate are spinach, broccoli, kale, citrus fruits, and avocado. You can also find folic acid mixed with/in food items, such as bread, breakfast cereals and flour. Moreover, you can also find dietary supplements made with folic acid as an ingredient.

Inadequate dietary intake is often the cause of folate deficiency, and that's why folic acid is often recommended. 

The importance of Folic Acid/ Folate 

The human body needs folic acid for cellular division and conversion of homocysteine to methionine. Homocysteine is a commonly found amino acid in the blood (amino acids help create protein), and if the levels of homocysteine are high, it can lead to heart disease. At the same time, methionine is an antioxidant that breaks down homocysteine to detox your body from all kinds of harmful substances that can be found in your body. 

Benefits of Taking Folic Acid 

Folic Acid is particularly important during pregnancy. Pregnant women with a low level of folic acid in their bodies can suffer from complexities- both fetuses, such as congenital abnormalities (cleft lip and cleft palate, cerebral palsy), and mothers, such as peripheral neuropathy (damaged nerves of hands, arms and feet) and anemia (deficiency of red blood cells). Pregnant women should take at least 400 mcg of folic acid to prevent birth defects. 

Some studies have found that folic acid can help in reducing blood pressure in smokers. However, folic acid has also been shown to help non-smokers.

Possible Side Effects of Taking Too Much Folic Acid (Overdosage)

Just like any other vitamin, you should take folic acid carefully. The recommended dosage is not more than 1mg every day. If you are taking a supplement recommended by your physician, ensure to follow the prescription. Your dose shouldn't exceed 1mg daily because a higher dosage can lead to some side effects, such as having an upset stomach, confusion, irritability, diarrhea, nausea, behavioral changes, seizures, skin reactions, loss of appetite, sleep problems, trouble concentrating, and more. 

Another possible side effect of taking a high dose of folic acid is that it can mask the deficiency of the B12 vitamin. 

Potential Problems 

You should consult your doctor or nutritionist before taking any folic acid. If you have a kidney issue, have an infection or anemia; you need to get tested and confirm that you are safe to consume folic acid. 

If you are pregnant, your doctor may prescribe folic acid with other medications. Even if you are taking folic acid directly through plant-based foods, ensure you are not allergic to any of them. 

There are some medications that may react with other medications relating to folic acid; such as - methotrexate, pyrimethamine, nitrofurantoin, tetracycline and a few others. 

Wrapping Up in Simple Language

Folic acid is vital for healthy growth and development in your body. It is especially important during pregnancy to help the development of the baby’s nervous system. Check with a doctor/nutritionist to find out the correct dosage and whether you are allergic to folic acid and remember the possible side effects.