Also known as vitamin B-9, folic acid, along with the other B vitamins, helps the body to break down and convert the food that we eat into energy. It is recommended that adults receive a minimum of 400 mcg folic acid daily. Pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular need at least 500 to 600 mcg of folic acid each day.
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Folic acid is needed by the body to make and maintain cells. It helps to make DNA and RNA as well as amino acids and red blood cells. Because of this, adequate folic acid intake is essential during pregnancy to ensure proper growth of the fetus. Taking folic acid before and during pregnancy has been shown to decrease the chance of the baby having certain spinal defects.
Folic acid works to convert the amino acid homocysteine into methionine. Folic acid deficiency allows homocysteine levels to accumulate in the body. High levels of homocysteine are associated with heart disease and stroke. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, people with high homocysteine levels are nearly 1.7 times more at risk for coronary heart disease and over 2.5 times more at risk for stroke than those with normal levels.
Low levels of folic acid in the body have been linked to depression. A study published in the January 2005 issue of the "Journal of Psychopharmacology" found that people in certain cultures, with diets rich in folic acid, were less at risk for depression. The researchers also noted that low folate levels in the blood are common in people with depression, and those people are also more likely to have a poor response to antidepressants. What's more, treatment with folic acid is associated with an improved response to antidepressants.
Low levels of folic acid are also associated with an increased risk for colorectal and breast cancer. Because folate works to maintain and create healthy new cells, it's possible that it plays a preventive role, preventing cells from developing cancer-causing mutations, although more research is needed. If you have cancer, it is important to discuss your folate intake with your doctor. At high levels, folic acid intake has been shown to interfere with some chemotherapy drugs.