Folic Acid is a water soluble nutrient belonging to the B-complex family. The name folic acid is derived from the latin word “folium”, so chosen since this essential nutrient was first extracted from green leafy vegetables, or foliage. Sometimes referred to as vitamin M, folic acid was originally extracted from spinach in 1941 and was found to be an effective treatment for macrocytic anemia.
Among its various important roles, folic acid is a vital coenzyme required for the proper synthesis of RNA and DNA, the nucleic acids that maintain our genetic codes and insure healthy cell division. Adequate levels of folic acid are essential for energy production and protein metabolism, for the formulation of red blood cells, and for the proper functioning of the intestinal tract.
Of great import are recent studies connecting folic acid intake with the incidence of spinal closure problems in newborn babies. Health workers have long known that folic acid is required for the proper regulation and development of embryonic fetal nerve cells during the early stages of pregnancy. Now researchers have found an almost complete reduction in the incidence of spinal closure problems such as spina bifida in babies born to women with a daily folic acid intake of at least 400 micrograms.
Folic acid may also prove to be effective in the prevention and treatment of uterine cancer. A deficiency of folic acid causes cellular damage resembling the initial stages of uterine cervical dysplasia. Researchers discovered that women taking folic acid supplements have fewer precancerous cervical cells compared to women with low intake of folic acid. Evidence suggests that folic acid works by inhibiting the progression of abnormal cells into cancer cells and may even help return the damaged tissues to healthy condition.
Folic acid deficiency affects all cellular functions, but most importantly it reduces the body’s ability to repair damaged tissues and grow new cells. Tissues with the highest rate of cell replacement, such as red blood cells, are affected first, leading to anemia. Folic acid deficiency symptoms include a sore tongue, cracking at the corners of the mouth, gastro-intestinal distress, diarrhea, and poor nutrient absorption and malnutrition leading to stunted growth, weakness and apathy.
The current Recommended Daily Allowance for folic acid is 180 to 200 micrograms per day. This allowance is controversial as it is based more on politics than science. Studies have consistently shown that the average American gets less then half the previously recommended RDA of 400 micrograms per day for adults and 800 micrograms per day for pregnant women. Unable to make the great leap to suggest that people should take supplements to confer the protection offered by folic acid, government officials instead simply decided to lower the RDA.
Folic acid deficiency is a common vitamin deficiency that can develop within a few weeks to months of lowered dietary intake. Those with the greatest need for increased folic acid intake include people under mental and physical stress, including disease, alcoholics, and people taking oral contraceptives, aspirin, and anticonvulsants. Foods highest in folic acid include barley, beans, beef, bran, brewers yeast, brown rice, cheese, chicken, tuna, milk, salmon, wheat germ, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.
Though not generally regarded as toxic, large doses of folic acid can cause allergic skin reactions, and should be avoided by people being treated for hormone related cancers. High doses of folic acid can also cause problems convulsions in people taking the drug phytoin for a convulsive disorder.