Even though we generally eat foods like poultry, citrus, beans and whole grains, most of us are still not consuming enough folic acid.
As this week marks Folic Acid Awareness Week, folks like the National Council on Folic Acid (NCFA) are taking the wheel to explain what exactly folic acid is, why it’s important and what foods are high in it.
The NCFA is dedicated to spreading the word about folic acid because they note that only one in three women in the U.S. are getting enough of it in their diet. That means that nearly 67 percent of women run the risks of bearing children with potential birth defects like neural tube defects or spina bifida, which is when the spinal column does not fully develop to protect the spinal cord. Anencephaly is another birth-related defect that occurs when babies are born with undeveloped brains.
The term folic acid is the man-made, synthetic form of folate, which is a naturally occurring type of B vitamin found in leafy green veggies such as spinach, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli and turnip greens. Fruits like melons and bananas, as well as wheat bran, fortified cereals and breads are additional sources of natural folate.
The National Institutes of Health advises that both folate and man-made folic acid is necessary for the body’s production of new cells, including red blood cells, and the growth of tissues.
Katherine Jou, M.D., also weighs in on the importance of the vitamin: “It is necessary to make and repair DNA, the genetic material of the cell,” she stated. “It is also necessary for the metabolism of homocysteine, a protein that has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and other medical problems at high levels.”
The Office on Women’s Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends taking a vitamin pill (especially to the demographic of child bearing women) to guarantee that the proper levels of folic acid are indeed ingested. In particular, women who are able to get pregnant should aim for 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid per day.
It’s important to note that even if women aren’t planning on getting pregnant, they should still take necessary measures to get enough of the vitamin. The NCFA points out that this is because half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and many women don’t find out that they’re pregnant until later in the first term. During the beginning of pregnancies, levels of folic acid are extremely crucial for the development of the fetus; if vitamin levels are low, risk of birth defects may increase.
In addition to potential complications at pregnancy, deficient folate levels can cause an array of bodily problems like anemia, ulcers and diarrhea.
“DNA synthesis and repair can be impaired, which may increase the risk of cancer. Folate deficiency can also raise blood levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease,” Jou said.
Fortunately, folic acid levels can be easily checked and any such complications avoided. “Folic acid levels can be determined with a simple blood test,” said Jou.
Even though folic acid levels may seem like another blood test to get and the pesky reason to make yet another doctor’s appointment, think of it this way: would you ignore the “check oil” light on your dashboard or ignore the screeching sound your car makes when the brake pads become thin? Probably (and hopefully) not. Likewise, think of your body in that respect, because routine maintenance will lead to less auto shop repair appointments later down the road and, in the long run, to increased healthy mileage.