Vitamins are essential nutrients that play a vital role in sustaining crucial bodily functions. Our bodies need a total of thirteen vitamins, with eight belonging to the B-group (or B-complex) family. These B vitamins help convert food into glucose, which is needed by the body in the form of energy. Though a range of food items provide us with B vitamins, certain factors such as pregnancy, age, dietary choices and medical conditions, can lead to a higher demand for these nutrients. Vitamin B9, also called folate or folic acid, is one important member of the B-vitamin family, which aids in the production of DNA and RNA, the fundamental genetic materials of the body.
How do folic acid and folate differ from each other?
Folate and folic acid both belong to the Vitamin B9 family, yet they differ in sources and characteristics.
Folate is the naturally occurring form of Vitamin B9, which can be found in a variety of foods. It is naturally present in foods like legumes (lentils, beans, peas), citrus fruits, leafy greens (spinach, kale, etc.), avocados, and whole grains. Folate gets easily absorbed by the body and is used for functions such as cell division, DNA synthesis, and red blood cell formation.
The synthetic form of vitamin B9 is called folic acid and is not found naturally in foods. This vitamin is often added to processed foods like cereals, bread, and other grain products to address folate deficiency and its associated health issues. Folic acid needs to be converted into its active form, methyltetrahydrofolate, in the body before it can be utilized.
Benefits of consuming folic acid
1. Neural Tube Development: Folic acid is an important vitamin needed for women of childbearing age and during pregnancy. An adequate amount of folic acid on a daily basis is needed during pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). NTDs can result in serious malformations of the brain and spinal cord. Although a diet rich in folate can also be taken, for most women it can be hard to get the recommended daily amount of folate through food alone.
2. DNA Synthesis and Cell Division: Folic acid is an essential component for healthy cell division and DNA synthesis. It helps the formation, repair, and replication of DNA in all cells.
3. Red Blood Cell (RBC) Formation: RBCs are responsible for carrying oxygen to different cells and tissues of the body. Folic acid is required for the production of heme groups in hemoglobin present in RBCs. In the case of anemia, the blood can’t bring enough oxygen to all your tissues and organs, and without enough oxygen, the body can’t work as well as it should.
4. Amino Acid Metabolism: Folic acid helps in the metabolism of certain amino acids, notably homocysteine. High homocysteine levels are considered to be a risk factor for heart disease.
5. Growth and Tissue Repair: Folic acid promotes repair and growth of tissues in the body, ensuring healthy development and upkeep of various organs and systems.
6. Cognitive Function: High folate levels have been linked to better cognitive abilities in older adults. The sufficient intake of folic acid may contribute to the maintenance of brain function.
7. Immune System Function: Folic acid aids in raising the white blood cell count in the body. White blood cells, or leukocytes, play an important role in the immune system as they help fight against pathogens, toxins, and other harmful foreign bodies.
8. Skin and Hair Health: It also benefits in terms of health and maintenance of the skin, hair, and nails.
9. Mood Regulation: Adequate intake of folic acid may play a role in maintaining a balanced mood.
Conclusion: Folic acid and folate are both forms of Vitamin B9 - an essential nutrient that plays a crucial role in promoting various aspects of health, ranging from cellular division and DNA synthesis to the prevention of NTDs during pregnancy. While it is well-known for its connection to pregnancy, its influence on cardiovascular health, mental well-being, and cellular repair underscores its importance for people of all ages.