Folic Acid Helps You B Healthier — and Happier

Vitamin B9, also called folate or folic acid, is one of eight B vitamins. All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B-complex vitamins, also help the body use fats and protein. B-complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly. Folic acid is the synthetic form of B9, found in supplements and fortified foods, while folate occurs naturally in foods. All the B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that the body does not store them.

Folic acid is crucial for proper brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health. It aids in the production of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material, and is especially important when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, such as in infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy. Folic acid also works closely with vitamin B12 to help make red blood cells and help iron work properly in the body.

Alcoholism, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease can cause folic acid deficiency. Also, certain medications may lower levels of folic acid in the body. Folic acid deficiency can cause poor growth, tongue inflammation, gingivitis, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, diarrhea, irritability, forgetfulness, and mental sluggishness.

Folic acid is used for preventing and treating low blood levels of folic acid (folic acid deficiency), as well as its complications, including “tired blood” (anemia) and the inability of the bowel to absorb nutrients properly. Folic acid is also used for other conditions commonly associated with folic acid deficiency, including ulcerative colitis, liver disease, alcoholism, and kidney dialysis.

Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant take folic acid to prevent miscarriage and “neural tube defects,” birth defects such as spina bifida that occur when the fetus’s spine and back don’t close during development.

Some people use folic acid to prevent colon cancer or cervical cancer. It is also used to prevent heart disease and stroke, as well as to reduce blood levels of a chemical called homocysteine. High homocysteine levels might be a risk for heart disease.

Additionally, folic acid is used for memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, age-related hearing loss, preventing eye disease such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), reducing signs of aging, weak bones (osteoporosis), jumpy legs (restless leg syndrome), sleep problems, depression, nerve pain, muscle pain, AIDS, a skin disease called vitiligo, and an inherited disease called Fragile-X syndrome. It is also used for reducing harmful side effects of treatment with the medications lometrexol and methotrexate.

Folic acid is often used in combination with other B vitamins. Some people apply folic acid directly to the gum for treating gum infections. Foods with folic acid in them include:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Dried beans, peas, and nuts
  • Enriched breads, cereals and other grain products

Rich sources of folate include spinach, dark leafy greens, asparagus, turnip, beets, and mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, soybeans, beef liver, brewer’s yeast, root vegetables, whole grains, wheat germ, bulgur wheat, kidney beans, white beans, lima beans, mung beans, salmon, orange juice, avocado, and milk. In addition, all grain and cereal products in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid.

If you don’t get enough folic acid from the foods you eat, you can also take it as a dietary supplement. But like all supplements, you should check with your physician before adding it to your diet.

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