Where it comes from: Folic acid (and folate) is a water-soluble vitamin B. Folate occurs naturally in food and folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Food sources include dark leafy greens, cereals, pasta, beans, mushrooms, organ meat, orange juice, tomato juice and more. Folic acid is frequently used in combination with other B vitamins in vitamin B complex formulations.
What it'll do for you: Folic acid helps the body break down, use and create new proteins. It helps form red blood cells and create new DNA. "It plays a key role with pregnant woman by preventing birth and neural tube defects," says Marissa Lippert, RD and author of The Cheater's Diet, who adds that Folic acid also benefits men. Here, the main benefits:
- Prevents against heart disease
Folate pairs up with vitamin B12 as a coenzyme to aid the metabolism of certain amino acids—homocysteine and methonine. Without enough folic acid in the body, homocysteine levels can increase and impact cardiovascular disease. Studies have supported the use of folic acid supplements for lowering homocysteine levels, however this does not fully prove that folic acid supplements will decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Prevents Alzheimer's disease
A 2005 study at the University of California at Irvine found that adequate amounts of folic acid may help ward off Alzheimer's disease. The study looked at 579 men and women (ages 60 and up) and found those who regularly consumed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid through foods and supplements cut their risk of developing Alzheimer's by more than 50 percent. Other studies support these findings and suggest that folic acid plays a key role in preventing the general memory loss that tends to come with old age.
Helps prevent type-2 diabetes
Folic acid may increase the breakdown of triglycerides—the chemical form in which fat exists in the blood—and therefore may have a role in the prevention of obesity and type-2 diabetes. A 2008 study by the European Journal of Endocrinology looked at four groups of women (from different geographic locations) and found those with a BMI of 30 and above had low levels of folic acid.
Helps treat depression
Folic acid deficiency has been found among people with depression and has been linked as a possible cause for poor response to antidepressant treatment. So, of course, folate supplements have been used for enhancing treatment response to antidepressants. More research is needed and folic acid is not a replacement for conventional antidepressant therapy.
Suggested intake: The upper daily limit recommendation for adult men is 1 milligram. "Ideally, that would be reached through food," says Lippert. Foods that are known to be high in folate are: dark, leafy greens (spinach and kale), asparagus, fortified whole grains (pasta, cereal and whole grain breads), beans and legumes (peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, black beans and kidney beans) and chicken liver—a 3.5-ounce serving of chicken liver provides 193 percent of the daily value of folate. If you decide to opt for supplements, doses of folic acid should not exceed 1,000 micrograms per day, as too much folic acid may result in a vitamin B-12 deficiency, which could cause permanent nerve damage if not treated.
In lines with the benefits of folic acid, folate deficiencies are associated with increased risks of heart disease, depression and anemia (deficiency impacts red blood cell production).
Deficiencies have been observed in alcoholics. In 1997, a review of chronic alcoholics found low folate levels in more than 50 percent of those surveyed. Why? Alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate and increases the amount of folate the kidney gets rid of. Also, many alcoholics have poor diets and don't meet the recommended intake of folate.
Associated risks/scrutiny: Folate intake from food is not associated with any health risk. "It's a water-soluble vitamin and any significant excess will naturally be eliminated through the body via urine," says Lippert. Ingesting too much folic acid via supplements can result in stomach problems, sleep problems, skin reactions and seizures.
While folic acid was, at one time, considered protective against cancers, it's now said it may actually promote certain ones. First, a study of 643 men at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine found that high doses of folic acid supplements failed to prevent colon cancer. Then another analysis of the same study's finding suggests a link between folic acid supplements an increased risk for prostate cancer. In the study, the men who took high doses of the vitamin saw a 163 percent risk increase in prostate cancer compared to men who did not take folic acid supplements. Some researchers conclude that folate is unlikely to be beneficial in regard to certain cancers—and may actually be harmful. More research is needed.