Folate, also known as folic acid, is an essential B vitamin that everyone needs, but not everyone gets enough of. Folate is the natural form found in leafy green vegetables and other types of whole foods such as legumes, bananas and eggs, whereas folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B that is added to foods and nutritional supplements. While it is an especially important nutrient for women, particularly those in their reproductive years or those who are pregnant, it is critical that both men and women obtain enough folate through proper diet and supplementation. Folate helps with developmental processes, brain function, cancer prevention, and detoxification, offering a host of health benefits that are important for healthy growth and function.
Research has linked folate deficiency to neural tube defects, so the United States Public Health Service recommends that women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of the vitamin every day. By getting this recommended amount early in pregnancy, women can reduce the risk of health problems in the fetus, such as brain tumors, cardiovascular problems, nerve development issues, and other serious concerns. Even a slight folate deficiency can make cervix cells more susceptible to viral attack, which can ultimately lead to cancer in some women. However, if it is detected early enough, large doses of folate (up to 10 mg a day) may help to slow or inhibit abnormal cell growth.
In some cases, consuming the recommended intake of folic acid has been shown to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in infants by up to 70 percent. However, it is important to discuss your specific folate needs, as some women have a genetic makeup that causes folate to increase their risk of developing breast cancer. These women may have inherited a specific variation of an enzyme that controls how their body uses folate.
Folate and many of the other B vitamins are critical in maintaining healthy brain function. As people age, some decline in brain function is inevitable, but a Dutch study examined whether otherwise healthy people could slow this decline by taking double the RDA of folate. The study looked at over 800 participants, ages 50 to 75, for three years that were taking either 800 micrograms of folic acid a day or a placebo, and found that the folate protected the users’ brains. The supplement users performed as well as those who were five and a half years younger on memory tests and as well as those who were almost two years younger on cognitive speed tests.
Folate also helps produce serotonin, which elevates mood and acts as a natural antidepressant. You can learn more about natural ways to boost your mood and your overall well being by reading about my lifestyle recommendations .
Folate and Homocysteine
In addition to boosting brain health and function, folate helps clear the body of toxins and other harmful additives. For example, homocysteine is a common amino acid found in the blood and is acquired mostly from meat products. An overabundance of homocysteine in the blood can contribute to heart disease, osteoporosis and kidney disease, and is associated with low levels of vitamins B6, B12 and folate. While the research linking high levels of homocysteine and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease is ongoing, it is clear that abnormal levels may cause damage to the arteries, resulting in atherosclerosis and the formation of blood clots. Feeding the body with folate helps to clear excess homocysteine, so people who are identified as having high homocysteine levels should increase their intake of folate and other B vitamins.
Japanese researchers also found that eating foods rich in folate, such as vegetables, fruits, whole or enriched grains, fortified cereals, beans, and legumes can help reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke. While the vitamin has powerful benefits for both sexes, they found that folate may lower the risk of heart failure in men and help prevent women from having a stroke or developing heart disease.
For these reasons, I recommend following an organic, whole foods-based diet full of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, as the high nutritional and antioxidant content will help you obtain proper levels of folate and most other vitamins and minerals. The nutrition attained from this diet will contribute to increased antioxidant activity, improved digestion, healthy inflammation response, healthy glucose metabolism, healthier lipid profiles, increased immune activity, increased energy and vitality, and other health benefits.