Folic acid, best known for its ability to help prevent birth defects, is a vitamin that most women know they need to get enough of during pregnancy. However, this vitamin is an important nutrient for women at all stages of life. The National Institutes of Health recommends about 400 micrograms of dietary folate per day for most adults to help maintain good health.
Folic Acid Benefits and Uses
The benefits of folic acid for women are very well known. It essentially helps the body produce new cells and keep existing ones healthy. This vitamin is considered so important that in 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started adding folic acid into cereal and grain products, making it easier to consume folic acid foods. This vitamin is water-soluble, which means that it leaves the body when you urinate.
Since folic acid isn’t stored in the body, it’s important to eat foods containing folic acid or take folic acid supplements regularly. Folate may be able to prevent or mediate a variety of health issues. In particular, folic acid is important in the prevention of anemia and cardiovascular diseases, including stroke. It may also be able to prevent cognitive and neuropsychological diseases such as dementia, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Folic acid can prevent digestive system issues, like diarrhea. It has also been linked to the prevention of a variety of different cancers, including bladder, breast, cervical, colorectal, esophageal, lung, ovarian, pancreatic and stomach cancer.
Women who are trying to become pregnant should know that folic acid supplements are recommended as they can help prevent neural tube defects, like spina bifida and congenital birth defects, like heart defects. Folate can also prevent low birth weight and preterm births. As a consequence, women who are trying to become pregnant or are lactating should take extra folic acid. The recommended dietary allowances of folate for lactating women are 500 micrograms, while the recommendation for pregnant women is 600 micrograms. This means that women should continue to take extra folic acid even after giving birth.
Sources of Folic Acid
You can find folic acid in many types of food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been adding folic acid to cereal and grain products since 1998. Fruits and vegetables are also excellent sources of folic acid. The United States Department of Agriculture has a database with a list of folic acid and folate-rich foods. Examples of foods rich in folate include:
- Asparagus: Four spears of asparagus contain 89 micrograms of folate.
- Avocado: Half a cup of avocado has 59 micrograms of folate.
- Brussels sprouts: Half a cup of boiled Brussels sprouts has 78 micrograms of folate.
- Citrus fruits: Examples of these include lemon, grapefruit and oranges. One small orange has 29 micrograms of folate, while ¾ cup of orange juice has 35 micrograms.
- Dark, leafy vegetables: Examples of these include collard greens, mustard greens and spinach. Half a cup of boiled spinach can have as much as 131 micrograms of folate, while a whole cup of raw spinach has 58 micrograms.
Folic Acid Side Effects
Folate is in a wide range of foods, which means that you’re likely consuming a little every day. However, taking folic acid supplements may lead to side effects, especially if you’re taking too much folic acid. These side effects include fever, respiratory symptoms like wheezing and tightness of the chest and skin rashes.
A 2016 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that too much folic acid can potentially increase the risk of cancer, insulin resistance, liver problems, neurological conditions and even mask vitamin B-12 deficiency. Always consult your doctor before you begin taking supplements.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus: Folic Acid in Diet
- NIH: Office of Dietary Supplements: Folate
- Mayo Clinic: Drugs and Supplements: Folic Acid
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: The adverse effects of an excessive folic acid intake.
- 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
- Oregon State University: Folate
- Neuroscience and Psychiatry: Neuroprotective Effects of Prenatal Folic Acid Supplementation