Folic acid is well-known for its role in preventing certain birth defects. But is that all it can do? Not by a long shot: This vitamin plays a significant role in overall health, too.
Your body uses this important B vitamin to create DNA, says Carrie Terrell, MD, an OB-GYN and division director at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. Your DNA is like a cookbook with the recipes for making every single protein inside your body. And because of its role in that process, folic acid is invaluable.
Luckily, it’s easy to include folic acid in your diet, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seafood, meat, grains and beans, are rich sources. Fill your plate with these:
- Brussels sprouts
- Enriched breads, cereals, and pasta
Here are 5 of the biggest benefits of folic acid, and how to tell if you might need to take a supplement.
1. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects.
This vitamin is crucial during the beginning stages of pregnancy. It helps form the baby’s early brain and spine, also known as the “neural tube.” Without enough folic acid, the neural tube may not close the way it should. This can lead to severe and even fatal birth defects.
These problems develop very early during pregnancy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates. So early, in fact, that a woman may not even know she’s expecting. That’s why doctors recommend 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid per day if you’re a woman of reproductive age. Yes, even if you don’t plan on becoming pregnant. Focus on the foods recommended above or talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.
2. Folic acid may lower your risk of stroke.
Research suggests that folic acid may reduce your levels of homocysteine. That’s a good thing, because high levels of homocysteine, a common amino acid in your blood, is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. A 2016 review in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that taking folic acid lowered stroke risk by 10% in people with various health conditions.
If you’re dealing with high blood pressure, another recent review might be of interest: The combination of folic acid supplements with blood pressure medication was found to reduce high blood pressure more than blood pressure medication alone.
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3. Folic acid may help ease symptoms of depression.
People with low blood levels of folic acid may face a higher likelihood of depression. What’s more, that same folic acid shortfall might interfere with your body’s response to antidepressant medication.
Why? It goes back to homocysteine again. A folic acid deficiency may lead to higher homocysteine levels, which is also associated with depression, according to research in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Boosting folic acid may lower homocysteine levels, easing depression symptoms as a result.
4. Folic acid may help prevent gestational diabetes.
Research conducted at the National Institutes of Health shows that getting plenty of folic acid during pregnancy may reduce your risk of gestational diabetes. This form of diabetes increases the likelihood of pregnancy-related complications, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Case in point: A recent study in the journal Diabetes Care found that pregnant women who supplemented with 600 mcg of folic acid a day were 30% less likely to develop the condition.
5. Folic acid may help improve type 2 diabetes symptoms.
If you have type 2 diabetes, folic acid may help improve your blood sugar control and lower your insulin resistance, according to a research review in the Annals of Epidemiology. What’s more, a recent study suggests that the vitamin may improve diabetes-related complications, including nerve damage. Researchers think folic acid’s homocysteine-fighting powers play a role.
Do you need a folic acid supplement?
Although most Americans get enough folic acid (400 mcg a day) through diet, some people could use help from a folic acid supplement.
“People who might benefit from a supplement include those considering pregnancy, people who take medications that may lower folate levels (such as seizure medications), people who consume large amounts of alcohol, and people with celiac disease,” Dr. Terrell says.
If you fall into any of those categories, or if you have a condition such as heart disease or diabetes, talk to your doctor to find out if a folic acid supplement makes sense for you.