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Folate is an essential nutrient that functions as a coenzyme for important body processes, like the synthesis of nucleic acids for DNA and RNA. It also helps to convert homocysteine to methionine. This is a vital process for healthy gene expression and influences embryonic development, chromosome stability, and epigenetic changes.
What Is Folate?
Folate is also known as folic acid or vitamin B9. While some use the terms folate and folic acid interchangeably, they are slightly different nutrients. Folic acid refers to a synthetic supplemental version and folate refers to food-derived or natural forms. There are also active forms of folate that do not need to be converted in the body. These are L-5-MTHF, also known as methylfolate, and folinic acid.
Folic acid is commonly added to foods that are fortified. It is frequently referred to as the “pregnancy nutrient” because deficiencies or low levels have a high association with neural tube birth defects. Folate is crucial in the first days and weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman knows she has conceived, so starting to supplement once a pregnancy is confirmed is often too late.
Health Benefits of Folate
- Promotes healthy embryonic development and prevents neural tube defects
- Converts homocysteine to methionine
- Supports heart health
- Promotes normal inflammatory processes
- Acts as a coenzyme for the synthesis of DNA/RNA
- Supports chromosome stability
- Facilitates the methylation cycle which influences how genes respond to the environment (epigenetics)
- Supports mental health and neurotransmitter levels
- Promotes healthy cognition
- May reduce the risk of preterm birth when supplemented throughout pregnancy
Food Sources of Folate
There are many food sources of folate, although dietary folate does not absorb at the same rate that supplemental folate does. It is estimated that 85 percent of supplemental folate or folic acid can be bioavailable when taken with food, whereas food-derived folate has a bioavailability of 50 percent or less.
Foods high in folate include:
- Beef liver
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens
Folate and folic acid are commonly found in supplements like multivitamins, prenatal vitamins, B complex vitamins, and as standalone nutrients.
The bioavailability of supplement forms can vary, and individuals with MTHFR gene variants may not be able to effectively metabolize folic acid. Many multivitamins now include multiple forms of folate, such as folic acid with L-5-MTHF or folinic acid, which can be metabolized more easily by some people.
Most people in the US get enough dietary folate. Women of childbearing age and Black women may be most at risk for insufficient levels. Others who may be at risk for low levels include:
- Women who take hormonal contraceptives
- People with alcohol use disorder
- Pregnant women
- People who have gut or digestive disorders that lead to malabsorption
- Those who have MTHFR variants
Folate is primarily absorbed in the small intestine, but can also be synthesized by bacteria in the colon, although it’s not known how much that contributes to available folate. The absorbability and activity of folate vary widely among people. Because there is a decreased chance of toxicity from consuming folate, especially when B12 is also taken, higher dosages are sometimes recommended to help achieve adequate absorption.
While most water-soluble nutrients have low toxicity potential, overconsuming folate can result in some complications over time. Excess folate or folic acid intake without the corresponding intake of B12 can mask B12 deficiency. This can lead to neurological damage that may not be reversible.
Tolerable upper limits have been established based on dosages that do not result in unmetabolized folate circulating in the bloodstream. It is not certain how unmetabolized folate may impact health, but it is noted in those who supplement with higher levels of folate or folic acid.
Tolerable upper limits for folic acid or folate supplementation as well as from fortified foods are 300 mcg daily for 1-3 years of age, 400 mcg daily for 4-8 years, 600 mcg daily for 9-13 years, 800 mcg daily for 14-18 years, and 1,000 mcg daily for ages 19 and older (including during pregnancy and lactation). Higher doses may be warranted or recommended by healthcare providers but concurrent B12 supplementation should also be considered.
(PPNF Note: When available, nutrition counseling is the best way to determine the supplements that are right for you. We understand that it is not always affordable or accessible. Supplements can be potent and have the potential for negative effects when used incorrectly. Use them with caution and follow recommended guidelines unless a practitioner directs you otherwise.)
Today’s Simple Step
If you already routinely eat Brussels sprouts foods, choose another folate-rich food from the list above to add to your meal plan for the day. If you take supplements, check your labels to see what type of folic acid or folate is included, and consider whether your intake may be adequate or not.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts are a great side dish that may be eaten hot or cold. They pair nicely with any main dish and can even be roasted alongside other favorite vegetables, like sweet potatoes or beets.