Folate, or vitamin B9, is most often associated with a healthy pregnancy. In 1998, the US Food and Drug Association mandated that folic acid — the synthetic form of folate — be added to all grain products in order to reduce the number of newborns with neural tube defects, such as cleft palate, spina bifida, and brain damage. The mandate worked: the rate of neural tube defects in the US has fallen between 19 and 32 percent since the late nineties.

But even if you’re not pregnant (or not a woman of child-bearing age), folate is still essential for supporting many functions throughout the body. Folate aids in the production of DNA and RNA, red blood cells, and immune cells. It helps with iron absorption and is crucial for proper brain function. Folate also works with vitamins B6 and B12 to help control blood levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that’s linked to heart disease. In addition to pregnancy, folate is especially important during other times of life when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, such as in infancy and adolescence.

The recommended intake of folate for adults is 400 mcg (micrograms) daily. Women who are pregnant or intend to become pregnant are advised to take 600 mcg daily.

Low levels of folate can lead to:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mental sluggishness

Like all B vitamins, folate helps the body convert food into fuel. It’s necessary for healthy skin, hair, and eyes, and helps the nervous system function properly. All B vitamins are water soluble, which means the body cannot store them, so they must be replenished daily.

Folate is naturally found in foods such as spinach, green leafy vegetables, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, beans and legumes, salmon, and avocado.

Folate and heart disease

There is some evidence that adequate levels of folate help reduce the risk of heart disease, although this information comes from population studies and has yet to be confirmed with clinical trials. However, low levels of folate are associated with higher levels of homocysteine in the blood. People with high homocysteine levels are 1.7 times more likely to develop coronary artery disease, and 2.5 times more likely to experience a stroke. Researchers are not yet sure if homocysteine causes heart disease or is just an indication that someone may have heart disease, but all B vitamins — especially B6, B9, and B12 — help lower homocysteine levels. People who are at risk of heart disease should make sure they are getting adequate levels of B vitamins, preferably from food sources.

Folate and depression

Folate deficiency is also linked to depression. Between 15 and 38 percent of people with depression have low levels of folate, and those with the lowest levels were found to be the most depressed. One study found that people who did not improve on anti-depressants had low levels of folate. Another study found that women who were taking Prozac experienced better results when they also took 500 mcg of folic acid daily.

Folate vs. folic acid

Even though folic acid is added to all grains and cereal products in the US, low levels of folate are fairly common. Folic acid may be more difficult for some people to absorb than folate in its natural form, and the emphasis on fortified foods may lead some people to think that they don’t need to include folate-rich foods in their diet. Certain digestive issues, like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease, can contribute to low levels of folate.

A certain genetic variation in the MTHFR gene also makes it more difficult to convert folic acid into a useable form. A reduced ability to break down folic acid can lead to high levels of folic acid circulating throughout the body, which may contribute to the growth of certain cancers. Research indicates that as much as half of the population may have some form of MTHFR variation. Anyone with an MTHFR variation should avoid synthetic folic acid, eat lots of leafy greens, and adopt habits that support a healthy digestive system so that the body can absorb nutrients from food effectively.

You can find out if you have an MTHFR variation by by ordering your genetic report from Vivaliti DNA. Your 49-page report reveals your ideal matching diet, risks of nutritional deficiencies, most beneficial exercises, and other information that can help you reach your health goals and reduce the risk of disease. Order your genetic test now!