By Riva Preil
This week marks National Folic Acid Awareness Week. Folic acid (also known as folate or Vitamin B-9) is an essential nutrient whose name is a derivative from the Latin folium (leaf) because it is found in many leafy vegetables such as lettuce, asparagus, spinach, and turnips. Folic acid can also be obtained by eating lentils, egg yolks, Baker’s yeast, fortified breads and cereals, and sunflower seeds. Folic acid is required for DNA synthesis and repair, and it is also required for many chemical reactions to occur. Furthermore, folic acid enables mitosis (cell growth and division) to occur properly and efficiently, especially in developing fetuses and infants. In addition, it is involved with producing red blood cells which is important for proper delivery of oxygen throughout the body.
Clearly, folic acid is involved with many basic life functions, and it is no surprise that folic acid deficiency has many detrimental effects. One of the most notable results is neural tube defects (ex. malformation of the brain, spine, and skull) in a developing fetus. Therefore, the Reference Daily Intake suggested for pregnant women is 600 micrograms of folic acid per day (compared to the recommended 400 micrograms for non-pregnant woman above age 14 and the recommended 500 micrograms for lactating women). Folic acid is important for men as well, and it is believed to be linked with decreased chromosomal abnormalities in sperm. Fortunately, most people have a folic acid reserve ranging between 500 and 20,000 micrograms, therefore it is rare to develop a folic acid deficiency. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms which include peripheral neuropathy (numbness and weakness in the extremities due to nerve damage), diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cognitive deficits (ex. confusion and forgetfulness). An ounce of prevention is worth MORE than a pound of cure, especially when it is so easy! Take a moment to reflect this week upon your folic acid intake. If you don’t think you are consuming adequate amounts of folic acid, please speak with your health care provider about an appropriate supplement for you, especially if you are considering becoming pregnant.