Folates and Folic Acid

Folic acid is a form of a B vitamin and is often referred to as folate. Yet it is just one of many folates, which come in many chemical forms. Folic acid is not commonly found in foods, but since it is the most stable form of folate, it is used in vitamin tablets and supplements. There are many sources of folates. They include, fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, asparagus, lentils, breads, and even starches (most of which have been enriched) like pasta and rice.

Folates work in conjunction with Vitamin B12 to help prevent nerve damage. Studies have shown that low levels of folates in the body correspond with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Some studies also show that supplements of folic acid in the diet can reduce the chance of having mental problems at a later age. Even so, high levels of folates are thought to be able to mask some of the symptoms of nerve cell damage if not taken in conjunction with B12.

Getting sufficient folates is vital for mothers carrying a child. Folates in the diet help prevent brain and spinal chord defects in children. This is because cell division is occurring at a rapid rate in fetal development and the reproduction of RNA and DNA requires the participation of folates. Anencephaly and spina bifida can result. These defects commonly occur within the first month of pregnancy, before most women are even aware of their condition. Thus, it is recommended by nutritionists that women trying to get pregnant or who are sexually active should take folic acid as a supplement or consume foods rich in folates.1

Cancer is thought to arise from damage within DNA and its repair. Since folates are vital to the building and repair-work in cells, folates may help prevent cancer from occurring. Alcohol consumption is known to interfere with folate absorption.

In the body, the function of folates is to assist the transfer of carbon units in nucleic and amino acids. In this way it is a major factor in the creation and repair of DNA and RNA. In the course of this process it converts homocysteine to methionine, which in turn creates S-adenosylmethionine which does the heavy lifting in DNA repair. High levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease. A deficiency of folates then results in insufficient conversion of the substance to methionine.

Folic acid is one of the B Vitamins, thus it can be referred to as B9 (though it seldom is). It is water soluble, and is not stored in the body. It must be replenished daily in the diet. Like other water soluble vitamins, an excess amount of folic acid should not result in any side-effects other than that noted above regarding the presence of folates in the relative absence of B12.2 The FDA recommends 400 micrograms per day of folates in the diet or in supplements.


  1. Linus Pauling Institute


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