The ABCs of Vitamins: Vitamin B9 (Folate or Folic Acid)
This week, in part eight of my series on the ins and outs of vitamins, we will look at the neural tube developing superstar known as vitamin B9.
What Does It Do?
Vitamin B9, also known as folate or folic acid, is the seventh of the eight B vitamins and is generally the most widely publicized due to its association with pregnancy and preventing defects caused by a malformed neural tube. Folic acid is the synthetic version of vitamin B9 that is found in any supplements and foods that have been fortified, while folate is naturally found in food.
Glutamic acid, pteridine, and PABA are the three components that make up folate. The human body requires enzymes in the intestines to chemically alter folate in order for it to be absorbed and utilized in the body. It should also be noted that only about 50% of ingested folate from food is actually absorbed.
Folate helps to complete the development of red blood cells. Any deficiency of folic acid can drastically affect the ability of the blood cells to form properly and allows the cell to continue to grow without dividing. This condition is called macrocytic anemia.
Folate is also involved in maintaining healthy circulation by preventing an accumulation of an amino acid called homocysteine. High serum levels of homocysteine have been associated with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. A low intake of folate can be a key contributor to this situation. Increasing folate intake, especially in men, is a simple way to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Skin cells, intestinal cells, and generally any other cells that line the exposed surfaces of the body have a short life span. These cells are highly dependent on folate for their creation. A lack of folate has been linked to an array of issues involving these areas. Conditions include gingivitis and periodontal disease, cleft palate, vitiligo, and even possibly cancers of the esophagus and lung, uterus, cervix, and intestine.
Folic acid is instrumental in helping to prevent neural tube defects in newborns, but it is also utilized in other nervous system functions and helps to prevent general mental fatigue, depression, confusion, and insomnia. Neurotransmitters - the nervous system’s messaging system - rely on folic acid for their creation. A link has been found in mothers who eat a Mediterranean style diet rich in folate and the lowered incidences of infants being born with spina bifida. Research is now also finding a link between blood levels of folate and dementias like Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately, B9 is essential in maintaining mental and emotional health along with proper brain function.
Foods Rich in Vitamin B6
The best sources of folate include spinach, asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, beef liver, salmon, avocado, kidney beans, and most cereal products as they have been fortified with folic acid.
It is fairly common to have low levels of folic acid in your system. Deficiency can be linked to mental fatigue, depression, irritability, muscular fatigue, poor growth, and gingivitis. As it is involved in protecting the lining of body cavities, a deficiency can also be link to intestinal tract issues like diarrhea. It should also be noted that certain medications can cause lower levels of folic acid to be absorbed in the body. People specifically at risk of deficiency are those who have issues with alcohol.
Doses higher than 1500-2000 micrograms can actually trigger similar nervous system symptoms that folic acid is used to treat. An upper limit of 1000mcg has been set and is only applied to synthetic folate, which is added to supplements and fortified foods.
Vitamin B9 is currently being investigated to help with the following conditions:
- Depression - Low levels of folate in the blood has been associated with depression. It is thought if these levels are low that even administering antidepressants might not help. More research is needed into whether supplementing with folic acid can increase the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs.
- Neural tube defects - The supplementation of folic acid before and during early pregnancy can help to prevent neural tube defects in babies. The FDA requires companies to add folic acid to bread, cereals, flour, pasta, and other grain products and this has seen a steady decrease in babies born with neural tube defects.
- Heart disease and stroke - It is still unclear whether supplementing with folic acid and other B vitamins can help reduce heart disease, even though they do lower homocysteine levels. On the other hand, several studies have found a combination of folic acid and other B vitamins can prevent incidences of stroke.
- Cancer - Folate has been shown to decrease the risk of several types of cancers, but it has also been linked to accelerating the spread of cancer in those already afflicted. For this reason consulting with a doctor is important if attempting to exceed the 1000mcg upper limit especially in individuals with colorectal issues.
It is recommended to get the following amounts of vitamin B6 per day:
- Infants: 65mcg up to 6 months and 80mcg up to 12 months
- Children: 80mcg a day up to 3 years, 200mcg a day up to 8 years, and 300mcg a day up to 13 years
- Adolescents and adults: 400mcg a day for males 14 and older. 400mcg a day for females 14 and older.
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: Pregnant women will need 600mcg and breastfeeding women will need around 500mcg a day.
With any type of supplementation, always consult your health care provider to make sure you are taking the correct doses or to check if you even need to supplement as your diet could be providing an adequate supply.
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