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Folic Acid For Women: Deficiency Symptoms, Benefits & Side Effects

Folic acid benefits women in many ways. From preventing birth defects to improving fertility, folic acid is an essential vitamin for women, especially those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. It's important to know the folic acid deficiency symptoms and supplement side effects.

What is Folic Acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 used as a supplement or in fortified foods. All B vitamins are used to help the body turn food into energy. Folic acid is used to generate new cells, build proteins, make red blood cells, and create DNA. It may also help prevent certain health conditions like stroke and heart disease. You can consume vitamin B9 naturally in some foods (folate), but most people require supplements to get a sufficient amount. Folate is a water-soluble vitamin that is not readily stored in the body like fat-soluble vitamins. Consequently, this nutrient needs to be replenished daily to maintain healthy levels. Folic acid supplements are easily digested and absorbed in the body.

Food sources that are rich in folate include:

  • Green leafy vegetables (spinach, asparagus, broccoli, etc.)
  • Beans
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Whole grains
  • Seafood
  • Eggs and dairy
  • Meat and poultry

Folic acid can be found in fortified:

What Causes Low Folic Acid?

When someone does not consume enough folic acid, it results in an insufficient amount of healthy red blood cells (folate deficiency anemia). The lack of dietary folate is the most common cause of folic acid deficiency. Certain conditions put people at a higher risk of folic acid deficiency. Increased risk factors that may cause a folic acid deficiency include:

  • Pregnancy: A growing fetus requires folate to grow cells and prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). 
  • Alcoholism: Alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate and speeds up the rate of excretion. People with alcoholism also tend to substitute food for alcohol or have a poor diet that lacks folate.
  • Digestive system disorders: Celiac disease and Crohn’s disease can decrease the absorption of folate. Intestinal surgeries may also interfere with the proper absorption of folate.
  • Hemolytic anemia: This blood disorder occurs when blood red cells are destroyed faster than they can be made. 
  • Certain medications: Ulcerative colitis and anti-seizure drugs affect the absorption of folate.
  • Overcooking fruits and vegetables: Excessive heat can destroy the naturally occurring folate in your produce.

Folic Acid Deficiency Symptoms

Signs of a folic acid deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hair loss
  • Pale skin
  • Mouth sores

Folic acid deficiency may take 8-6 weeks to become evident. If you’re experiencing these symptoms or suspect you may have a deficiency, your doctor can properly diagnose you through a blood test. Folic acid supplements and a balanced diet will be prescribed to treat a deficiency. Other complications of a folic acid deficiency can include decreased cognitive function, depression, and infertility.

Benefits of Folic Acid for Women

Folic acid supplements are used to:

  • Prevent birth defects in babies: Folic acid supplements can help prevent NTDs, such as spina bifida and anencephaly, in developing babies. Taking enough folic acid before and during pregnancy is the best way to prevent your baby from being born with these conditions.
  • Lowers the risk of stroke and heart disease: A review of 30 studies showed that supplementing with folic acid led to a 10% reduction in heart disease risk and a 4% reduction in stroke risk.
  • Reduces the risk of complications during pregnancy: Folic acid supplements help lower the risk of pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia and miscarriage.
  • Increase fertility: Folate can improve egg quality and help them grow. Taking supplements may increase the chance of getting pregnant.
  • Maintain brain health: Low folate levels are linked to mental health conditions and poor cognitive function. Sufficient folate intake may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and reduce symptoms of mental health conditions

What is the Recommended Intake of Folic Acid?

Individuals may require different recommended daily doses of folic acid. A folic acid supplement of 400mcg or less a day is suggested for adults since you will most likely obtain the nutrient from food. All women aged 14 and older need 400mcg. Those who are pregnant require 600mcg a day to develop a healthy baby. If you are expecting twins, you need a daily dose of 1,000 mcg. If you are nursing, you should have 500mcg of folic acid each day.

Are There Any Risks in Taking Folic Acid? 

The upper limit for folic acid is set at 1,000 mcg because high amounts of folic acid can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. This deficiency is more common in older adults or those eating a vegan diet. Folate and B12 are involved in making red blood cells. A shortage of either can cause anemia. While a person may correct the anemia and improve symptoms while taking high-dosage folic acid supplements, the B12 deficiency will still be present. A prolonged vitamin B12 deficiency can slowly cause damage to the brain and nervous system.

Potential Folic Acid Supplement Side Effects

The typical amount of folic acid in a supplement is safe to consume but like any medicine, it can have side effects for some individuals.

Possible side effects of folic acid supplements include:

  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating

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Conclusion: The Importance of Folic Acid for Everyone

Folic acid is the synthetic form of vitamin B9 that the body uses to generate new cells and create red blood cells. Pregnant women need to get enough folic acid to prevent NTDs and pregnancy complications. Why would you need folic acid if you aren’t pregnant? Folic acid is important for not only women but also men and children. Sufficient folate levels can protect the brain and body from certain diseases. Folate helps a child’s body develop and gives them energy.

This nutrient is not stored in the body and must be consumed daily. Folate is found naturally in some foods and certain products are fortified with folic acid. Eating a healthy diet with folate-rich foods allows people to get enough folate in their diet, while others require supplements. Insufficient folate levels result in folic acid deficiency, which is characterized by fatigue, mouth sores, and difficulty concentrating among others. Certain conditions can put individuals at a higher risk of deficiency, such as alcoholism. Folic acid supplements allow individuals to get enough folate to stay healthy and prevent folic acid deficiency.


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