The Office on Women’s Health recommends women of childbearing years get 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid daily whether or not you have visions of a baby in your future. Folic acid, or vitamin B-9, is the man-made version of folate, which is found naturally in foods. Your body uses it to make new cells and it prevents spinal and brain birth defects, which occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before you may realize a baby is on the way. Folic acid doesn’t just benefit your baby; it benefits your future health as well.
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Breast Cancer Prevention
Moderate alcohol consumption is linked to breast cancer risk in women, and insufficient consumption of folate makes that risk even higher. A 1999 study in the “Journal of the American Medical Association” showed women consuming at least one alcoholic drink a day cut their risk for breast cancer in half when they supplemented with 600 micrograms of folic acid. A more recent meta-analysis published in 2007 in the "Journal of the National Cancer Institute" showed lower rates of breast cancer in alcohol drinkers who had adequate folate levels.
Homocysteine is an amino acid in your blood. Elevated levels of this amino acid have been linked to heart disease risk, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Folic acid along with other B vitamins break down homocysteine in your blood, thereby decreasing those levels. The American Heart Association supports adding 400 micrograms of folic acid along with 2 milligrams of vitamin B-6 and 6 micrograms of vitamin B-12 to help lower homocysteine levels when diet isn’t enough.
Your body needs folate to manufacture new red blood cells. When your cells aren’t getting enough folate, you start producing fewer and larger red blood cells, which is known as megaloblastic or macrocytic anemia. As this condition progresses, you develop symptoms of weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath. The Linus Pauling Institute states a folic acid supplement prevents and treats this condition.
There is a correlation between low folate levels and cognitive decline in older people. A study published in 2007 in “The Lancet” showed individuals taking 800 micrograms of a folic acid supplement for three years performed better on cognitive tests examining skills such as memory, processing speed and word fluency compared to those taking a placebo. Folic acid supplementation has been shown to halt age-related hearing loss in elderly people with high homocysteine and low folate levels. It may also prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in those over 50, when taken with vitamins B-6 and B-12.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health: Folic Acid Fact Sheet
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Vitamin B-9 (Folic Acid)
- Journal of the American Medical Association: A Prospective Study of Folate Intake and the Risk of Breast Cancer
- Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Folate and Risk of Breast Cancer: A Meta-Analysis
- Linus Pauling Institute: Folic Acid
- The Lancet: Effect of 3-year Folic Acid Supplementation on Cognitive Function in Older Adults in the FACIT Trial: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Controlled Trial