Issue 70 / July - August 2009
A Vitamin that Could Change Your Life: Folic Acid
Sehnaz Dogu Ekicikol
To have a beautiful, healthy baby is the dream of all would-be parents. Nevertheless, dreams do not always come true. Austin was a very healthy boy. He used to sleep and eat nicely. In fact, he was very good and everything was wonderful until he was five months old. Austin's mother started to worry when she noticed that his eyes had started to cross and he stopped rolling, babbling, and laughing. Later on, he was not able to hold his head up. Austin's mother had him checked by several doctors, and finally he was diagnosed with cerebral folate deficiency.
All parents do everything they can to keep their children healthy. The creation of a baby in a mother's womb still remains a wonder not fully explained by scientists. Birth has been a mystery in the life of human beings since the beginning of history. Religious sources show the phases of a baby's growth in the mother's womb, the perfect design of the environment that supports the needy baby with everything it needs, and its birth, all as examples of God's mercy and power. Although the whole process of pregnancy develops with almost no interference from outside, there are some precautions that parents can take to have a healthier baby.
How to start taking care of a baby even before pregnancy
Science makes it clear that we should not wait until we hold a baby in our arms before we start taking care of him or her. But how can we take care of a baby even before conception? Well, one of the answers is quite simple: by taking folic acid! If women have enough folic acid, vitamin B complex, in their bodies before pregnancy, this vitamin B complex can reduce the risk of neural birth defects by up to 70%. Neural tube defects (NTD) are a group of congenital birth defects that influence the central nervous system. The neural tube forms in the embryo between 4 to 6 weeks after conception and then closes. The neural tube eventually becomes the baby's spinal cord, spine, brain, and skull. If the neural tube does not close properly, the baby may have neural birth defects, in which case the baby lacks either a developing brain, spinal cord or both. NTDs occur very early in pregnancy, even before most women know that they are pregnant. The most common neural birth defects are anencephaly and spina bifida. In anencephaly, the brain is either not fully developed or is completely absent, while in spina bifida part of the baby's spinal cord remains outside the body.
Folate deficiency and folic acid
Folate, also called vitamin B9, is a water-soluble vitamin. It is essential to human life and is found naturally in some foods such as liver, citrus fruits and juices, whole grains, and dark green leafy vegetables. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folic acid can be obtained from supplements and fortified breads and cereals. Both folic acid and folate work for the same purpose, and in this article the terms are used interchangeably.
In folate deficiency, the body is unable to transport folic acid to the brain, resulting in mobility problems, blindness and seizures. Pregnant women in particular can be at great risk of giving birth to low-birthweight, premature babies who may have neural birth defects. In children, folate deficiency can slow general development. In adults, a type of anemia appears in long-term folate deficiency. There are also other signs of folate deficiency such as headaches, loss of appetite, sore tongue, diarrhea, forgetfulness and irritability.
Why folic acid is important
Folic acid plays a very important role in various body processes including cell maintenance and repair, formation of red blood cells (which provide oxygen to tissue), formation of white blood cells (which defend the body against infectious disease), synthesis of DNA (hereditary material) and amino acid metabolism. It also plays a crucial role in preventing human illness. Folic acid supplements cannot prevent stroke or heart disease, but studies have shown that it can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Recent research shows that it supports the functioning of blood vessels, which improves the blood flow to the heart. In addition, folic acid helps to protect against the development of some forms of cancer, particularly colon, cervical, esophageal, breast, and stomach cancers.
A number of scientific experiments have shown that people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease have low levels of folic acid in their blood. Thus, it is not surprising that folic acid is crucial for brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health.
If you are a married woman and have plans to have a child some day, you should definitely start to take folate because by the time you know you are pregnant, your baby's brain and spine will already have been formed. This is why it is important for women to maintain sufficient levels of folic acid all through their child-bearing age even if they are not planning a pregnancy.
Should only women take folic acid?
No, not really. Every adult man and woman should consume it every day to reduce their risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and stroke.
If this is a vitamin that could change our life forever, how much should we consume and where can we get it from? You can get your folic acid naturally from foods such as liver, nuts, peanut butter, dried peas and beans, oranges, tomato and pineapple juice, avocados, cantaloupes, asparagus, and leafy green vegetables. Some breakfast cereals with 100% of the recommended daily allowance per serving are Crunchy Nuggets, Multi-Grain Cheerios Plus, Product 19, Whole-Grain Total, Total Corn- Flakes, Total Raisin Bran, and Special K. It can also be obtained from other, less processed grain products such as bread, pasta, and rice. Taking a multivitamin containing the recommended daily allowance of 400 micrograms is another option. The following table suggests a variety of dietary sources of folate.
Table 1: Selected Food Sources of Folate and Folic Acid
* Items marked with an asterisk (*) are fortified with folic acid as part of the Folate Fortification Program.
^ DV = Daily Value. DVs are reference numbers developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help consumers determine if a food contains a lot or a little of a specific nutrient.
Sehnaz Dogu Ekicikol obtained a master's degree on Microbiology from Georgia State University.
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Agriculture's Nutrient Database Web site: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/cgi-bin/nut_search.pl.