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Folic Acid (Folate)

Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin found naturally in Brewer's yeast, liver, most types of berries, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits and juices, rice, soybeans, and wheat. Whether natural or synthesized, folate promotes the formation of red blood cells, helps maintain the central nervous system (CNS), and promotes normal development and growth.

View a second image of folic acid.

Taking its name from the Latin word for leaf, folium, folic acid was first isolated from spinach leaves. Known also as vitamin B-9 or B(C), deficiencies can cause anemia, weakness, lack of energy, paleness, mental confusion, and headaches. Women of reproductive age, especially pregnant women, are encouraged to modify their diets to increase folate intake or supplement with folate-enriched foods or the synthetic vitamin to avoid neural tube defects (NTDs), which are birth defects of the baby's brain (anencephaly) or spine (spina bifida). Up to 70 percent of some very serious birth defects are preventable by taking only 400 micrograms of folic acid per day. Because many pregnancies are unplanned, women need to regularly get the required amount, since by the time she is aware of a pregnancy, the baby's brain and spine are already formed. Some breakfast cereals have 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) added and many brands of breads, pastas, and rice are also enriched with folic acid.

Essential for the production of DNA, folic acid becomes more important for the rapidly developing and growing embryo. Side benefits of high levels of folate in the bodies of men and women are lower homocysteine levels, which decrease the risks of heart disease and stroke. Although not as well understood, there are some indications that folic acid fights some forms of cancer, such as colon and breast cancers, and reduces the risks of several other types of birth defects, including cleft palates.

Contributing Authors

Omar Alvarado, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.


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