Folate is the natural source of vitamin B9 found in a variety of foods, most often, in leafy green vegetables, dried beans, and peas. When it is used as an additive in foods, generally in bread, grains or breakfast cereal, or when it is taken as a supplement, it is called folic acid. It is an important vitamin, especially when taken by women who are pregnant, planning to get pregnant, or nursing.
Production and rapid division of new cells are assisted by folate. It helps to make both DNA and RNA. It can reduce chances of getting some forms of anemia and may help to prevent cancer. Its most important use is for women who are trying to get pregnant because it has been shown to significantly reduce certain birth defects, called neural tube defects. All women attempting to get pregnant should begin taking a supplement containing this substance a few months before trying to conceive, and should continue taking folic acid throughout their pregnancy and while nursing.
While many vitamins are taken in milligram doses, folate is taken in microgram doses. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of this substance for adults is 400 micrograms (mcg), or .4 milligrams. Pregnant and nursing women should take 500 mcg, and may require a prescribed folic acid supplement. As beneficial as this substance can be to the body, too much can mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency that can result in anemia.
The danger of vitamin B12 deficiency when combined with adequate or overdoses of folic acid, is that folate tends to reduce most symptoms associated with inadequate intake of B12. Unfortunately, it doesn’t correct ongoing damage to the nerves. When the deficiency is not diagnosed and treated effectively, permanent nerve damage can occur.
Levels of folate need to be watched among certain groups because they may be too low. It is all about providing balance. Certain medications interfere with the absorption of this substance including methotrexate, anti-convulsants like dilantin, and diuretics like triamterene. Certain conditions like alcoholism, poor absorption of food, diseases of the bowel, kidney disease, or liver disease may mean folate is excreted before it is used, or never properly absorbed.
Folate deficiency can sometimes be shown through symptoms like slow growth (in children), poor appetite, weight loss, headaches, and diarrhea. These symptoms can be minor or not present at all.
In addition to being an important nutrient in the prevention of birth defects, this substance has several other benefits to the body. It lowers the level of homocysteine in the body, which when elevated, has been linked to greater risk for stroke and heart disease. Medical researchers have suggested that too little folate in the diet may be a causal factor in certain cancers, like breast cancer, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer. This substance can also help address the cell destroying aspects of methotrexate, which is used in high doses to kill cancer cells, and in low doses to treat a number of autoimmune diseases.