Why you might need folic acid even if not planning a pregnancy

Folic acid is essential to cell division and growth. It helps make DNA that gives instructions to construct components of the cell and coordinates function.

As a synthetic form of folate (vitamin B9) naturally found in food, folic acid is one of the most important supplements for women planning to get pregnant due to its role played in normal neural tube development in the fetus. According to the National Birth Defects Prevention Network (NBDPN), an intake of 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) a day can prevent 50% to 70% conditions such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Men, or women not planning a pregnancy, also benefits from a diet rich in folate. This nutrient is essential to produce red blood cells, cells of the gastrointestinal tract, stem cells, and support other parts of the body that need new cells each day - skin, hair, and nails are some examples. In conjunction with vitamin B12, vitamin B9 is essential to the normal function of the nervous system.

This article will discuss folate absorption, and you will find a few examples of folate food sources. But, sometimes, even eating well, supplementing with folic acid is necessary.

Health conditions and lifestyle interfere with folate absorption

The human body cannot store folate in large amounts because it's a water-soluble vitamin, which means any excess will end up in the urine. Therefore, only a few days on a diet low in folate can lead to deficient levels.

Some health conditions that affect the digestive system, such as celiac disease or Crohn's disease, can lead to folate deficiency. This vitamin is absorbed in the small intestine, primarily in the duodenum and jejunum. Vitamin B12 deficiency can also make it harder for the body to absorb folate properly.

Patients receiving chemotherapy or on kidney dialysis, where a machine filters waste products from the blood, are at risk of getting deficient in this vitamin.

As for lifestyle, drinking too much alcohol, eating an unhealthy diet lower in fruits and vegetables, or frequently using certain medicines, including antibiotics, not only affects folate absorption but it could induce folate-deficiency anemia.

Cooking methods can reduce folate retention in food

How you cook your food can reduce the retention of the natural levels of folate on it. As with other water-soluble vitamins, heat can destroy B9.

One study on the effects of different cooking methods found that folate from animal sources, such as beef, seems less affected by cooking methods and duration. However, they significantly reduce the folate retention of green vegetables.

If you overcook your vegetables, they might end up with an insignificant amount of folate left. Boiling broccoli or spinach can reduce vitamin B9 retention by 50% to 90%. If not raw, steaming is the best alternative as it results in no significant decrease in folate content.

Food Sources of Folate

If you eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and your health and lifestyle support absorption, you probably will get the recommended amount of folate your body needs.

Sources of folate with the best bioavailability, meaning how easy it can be absorbed, are liver, fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, vegetables, and other grains.

Considering the most nutrient-dense sources of folate, the ones with a higher amount per serving, we could list the following:

  • Leafy green vegetables (especially spinach and curly kale)
  • Asparagus
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Beans
  • Oranges
  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Sunflower seed
  • Egg
  • Wheat germ
  • Calf’s liver
  • Kidney

Another way to up your folate intake is to add nutritional yeast to your meals. This yeast, grown specifically to be used as a food product, has a cheesy-nutty flavor and is a good source of B vitamins and minerals. You will find it as flakes, granules, or powder in the spice section of groceries/health stores.

Alternatively, there are many kinds of cereal, bread, and orange juice fortified with folic acid.

When you should consider supplementing

About 3,000 pregnancies in the US are affected by neural tube defects (NTB) every year. The majority of pregnant women have no personal or family history of spina bifida and anencephaly.

The defects develop between four to six weeks after the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period - most women have no idea they are pregnant that soon. So, if your diet might not guarantee the recommended amount of folate, or you suspect your body might not absorb it well, you should consider supplementing even if not planning to get pregnant.

To prevent neural tube defects, 400mg of folic acid is necessary every day at least one month before conception through the first trimester of pregnancy. Discuss with your doctor the need for folic acid supplements.