What is folate?

Folate is a natural form of vitamin B9, a water-soluble vitamin present in many natural plant foods, including citrus fruits, legumes, and vegetables. So what are folate benefits and why is it important?

It’s also available as a supplement in the form of folic acid. Folic acid is also present in fortified foods.

Folate plays an integral part in the formation of red blood cells and DNA and DNA repair. It’s also essential during pregnancy and child development.

Inadequate intake may result in deficiencies within weeks. That’s pretty fast, right? This is because the body does not store folic and any residue is eliminated through urine. For this reason, regular intake of folate-rich foods is required to maintain your levels within a normal range.

This article provides detailed information on identifying folate deficiency and why you should work to improve your levels.

Folate benefits:

Folate performs numerous bodily functions, such as:

  • Promotes cell growth and multiplication
  • Essential for red blood cell formation and functions
  • Enhances a healthy brain and nervous system
  • Promotes brain development during pregnancy
  • Balances homocysteine in the body
  • Prevents neural tube defects in pregnancy
  • It enhances the utilization of vitamin B12, iron, and amino acids in the body
  • Supports heart health
  • Protects against cognitive decline
  • Can fight depression

What is folate deficiency?

A deficiency in folate means you have lower than normal levels of folate.

This may lead to a reduced number of red blood cells. As a compensatory mechanism, the body will produce large but abnormal cells that cannot function properly, leading to a type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia.

Red blood cells are essential for oxygen transportation throughout the body. If you do not have enough red blood cells, your body cells, tissues, and organs will not get enough oxygen and thus won’t function efficiently. This may lead to classical symptoms of anemia such as

  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • General body weakness
  • Irritability
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations or noticeable heartbeats
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale skin
  • Weight loss
  • Tinnitus (experiencing ringing or other types of noise in the ears that are not of an external source).

Folate deficiency symptoms:

In addition to the stated common symptoms of anemia, you may also experience:

  • Reduced sense of taste
  • Muscle weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Numbness and tingling sensation in the extremities
  • Inflamed tongue (glossitis)
  • Irritability

Causes of folate deficiency:

Although low intake of folate-rich foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits, fortified cereals, and legumes is the common cause of folate deficiency, other factors may play a role. They include:

1.   Genetics

However rare, folate malabsorption is an inherited disorder that affects your absorption of folate into the body. It’s often a genetic mutation that interferes with the body’s ability to convert folate into its usable form.

2.   Health conditions

Some conditions may interfere with folate absorption resulting in deficiencies. These include celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, kidney issues that require dialysis, and some cancer types.

3.   Certain medications

Drugs such as methotrexate, phenytoin, sulfasalazine, and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole act as folate antagonists, preventing its absorption and inhibiting the enzyme responsible for its conversion.

4.   Excessive alcohol intake

Alcohol impairs folate absorption and transportation to tissues and increases its excretion in urine.

Individuals at risk of folate deficiency:

We all need folate for our bodies to work and function properly. However, for some reason, some individuals may need it more than others. They include:

  • Pregnant women or those looking to get pregnant
  • Chronic alcoholics
  • Anyone with liver disease
  • Individuals on dialysis
  • Those on diabetic medication
  • Breastfeeding mothers
  • Those taking methotrexate
  • Having a malabsorptive disorder

Foods high in folate:

If your folate deficiency is due to poor intake of folate-rich foods, increasing your intake will significantly increase your levels and help resolve deficiency-associated symptoms.

The best plant options include:

  1. Spinach: a cup cooked provides 66 percent of the daily requirement
  2. Black-eyed peas: a cup cooked provides 53 percent of the daily requirement
  3. Kidney beans: a cup cooked provides 24 percent of the daily requirement
  4. Asparagus: 8 spears offer 44 percent of the daily requirement
  5. Brussels sprouts: a cup cooked provides 40 percent of the daily requirement
  6. Avocado: half a cup provides 15 percent of the daily requirement
  7. Mustard greens: a cup provides 26 percent of the daily requirement
  8. Romaine lettuce: a cup raw provides 16 percent of the daily requirement
  9. Broccoli: a cup cooked provides 26 percent of the daily requirement
  10. Orange: 1 medium-sized provide 7 percent of the daily requirement

Is folate the same as folic acid?

Folate and folic are often used interchangeably; however, the two have some differences.

While folate is naturally occurring in foods, folic acid is a synthetic version often available in supplements and fortified foods.

Folate is easily absorbed and utilized by the body, but for folic to be absorbed, it requires a particular enzyme known as dihydrofolate reductase. This enzyme is rare, making it difficult to metabolize folic acid, especially for women of child-bearing age. The accumulation of unmetabolized folic acid in the blood causes side effects such as concentration difficulties, mood disturbances, changes in sex hormones, sleeping difficulties, and vitamin B12 deficiencies.

High folic acid in the blood may also facilitate cancer development, according to research.

Final Thoughts

Folate is a water-soluble vitamin essential for red blood cell formation and child development during pregnancy, among other benefits.

Inadequate levels of folate in the body are associated with megaloblastic anemia.

Common causes of folate deficiencies include poor dietary intake, health conditions that interfere with its absorption, excessive alcohol intake, specific gene mutations, and certain medications.

Folate can also be taken as a supplement in the form of folic acid. This is especially beneficial in individuals that require more folate, such as in pregnancy. Otherwise, too much intake of folic may promote its accumulation in the body leading to health issues.

Food sources will always be your best source, so ensure you’re taking plenty of them.

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