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January 11, 2021 by Coach Cynthia Luna
What It Is
Today is the final day of Folic Acid Awareness Week which is observed annually during the first week of January; this year it was celebrated January 4th through January 10th. I wanted to post about the benefits of this micronutrient earlier this week, but I was overtaken by events (… I live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for context). In any case, it is never too late to celebrate those things that are beneficial… so today, I wish to highlight fabulous folic acid!
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a naturally occurring, water-soluble B vitamin (B-9 to be exact). It can be found naturally in many foods and is also readily available as a dietary supplement.
Why We Care About It
Folic acid plays a role in the creation of new cells (i.e., hair, skin, and nails among other genetic material) in our bodies. It appears to play a role in the occurrence (rather lack thereof) of depression. Specifically, a 2017 meta-analysis study concluded that individuals with depression have lower serum levels of folate and dietary folate intake than individuals without depression; that is, there appears to be an association or relationship between the amount of folate we get (either through diet or supplements) and depression. Folate may also prevent changes to DNA that can result in certain types of cancer. And, it is well-documented that, when taken at recommended levels, it can prevent some major birth defects.
Folic Acid and Birth Defects
To reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as those of the brain (aencephaly) and spine (spina bifida), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all women of reproductive age should get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day. The recommendation, which was first introduced in 1992 by the U.S. Public Health Service has encouraged pregnant women (as well as those who may become pregnant) to get enough folic acid (from fortified foods or supplements, or a combination of the two), in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet. And, since 1998, the U.S. Government has imposed a mandatory fortification standard on cereal grain products. As a result of this public health intervention, there has been a steady decline in babies born with birth defects and it is estimated that, yearly, 1300 babies are born healthy because of mandatory fortification.
Folic Acid and Prenatal Health
In addition to its role in preventing birth defects, folic acid plays a starring role in prenatal health. And, in fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women get 600 mcg of folic acid daily, with up to 400 mcg coming from prenatal vitamins. I really only remember with fondness one aspect of my pregnancy – the stunning growth and strength or my hair and nails; no doubt due to that fabulous folate! Am, I right?
In any case, any pregnancy-related folic-acid intake regimen ideally would be started at least 1 month prior to pregnancy (while you are trying to conceive) and continue through the first 12 weeks. And, if you have already had a child with a birth defect, you should take 4 milligrams (mg) of folic acid each day as a separate supplement at least 3 months before pregnancy through the first trimester.
Sources of Folic Acid
Folate/(Folic acid) can be found in many foods, particularly:
- Avocado – My fave!
- Citrus Fruits
- Leafy green vegetables
- Legumes (i.e., beans, lentils, peas)
- Nuts and Seeds
... to name a few. It can also be found in fortified grains found in cereals as well as in vitamin supplements; particularly prenatal vitamins.
As there are so many folate-rich foods available, it is relatively easy to incorporate meals that will help you optimize your daily intake. Here are a few of my favorite options:
- Breakfast: Avocado toast with a banana and a glass of orange juice OR a folate-rich smoothie (try this recipe) available on the CDC website.
- Lunch: Tomato-basil soup with a side of spinach sautéed in garlic OR a sliced boiled egg, sliced avocado, and tomato on whole grain toast
- Dinner: Chickpea, Cauliflower, and Coconut Curry over brown rice
With so many yummy (and healthy) options available, there's no wonder this micronutrient is so fabulous!
- Bender A, Hagan KE, Kingston N. The association of folate and depression: A meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;95:9-18. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.07.019
- Duthie S. J. (1999). Folic acid deficiency and cancer: mechanisms of DNA instability. British medical bulletin, 55(3), 578–592. https://doi.org/10.1258/000714299190264
- Williams J, Mai CT, Mulinare J, et al. Updated estimates of neural tube defects prevented by mandatory folic acid fortification – United States, 1995–2011. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64(1):1–5.