Folic acid (folate)
Folic acid is a type of B vitamin that’s key for cell growth and metabolism. Studies show that many people in the UK don’t get enough folic acid.
Don't be confused by the different terms folate and folic acid. They have the same effects. Folate is the natural substance in whole foods. Folic acid is the synthetic version in supplements and fortified products.
Folic acid uses
Folic acid supplements are recommended for pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant. Folic acid can lower the risk of pre-eclampsia and early labour.
It can also reduce the risk of some birth defects, such as neural tube defects, by 50% to 70%, and for this reason the Department of Health recommends that any woman who may be or may become pregnant should take a daily supplement of 400mcg (0.4mg) of folic acid whilst trying to conceive and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women who have previously conceived a child with a neural tube defect, or who have certain medical conditions such as diabetes or coeliac disease, should speak to their GP about taking higher doses. Folic acid can protect against birth defects that may occur before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Folic acid is used to treat deficiencies, which can cause certain types of anaemia and other problems. Folate deficiencies are more common in people who have digestive problems, kidney or liver disease, or who abuse alcohol. When used to treat deficiencies, folic acid should be used along with vitamin B12. In addition to treating anaemia, these supplements work together to promote neurological health. Folic acid is also used to reduce the toxicity of the drug methotrexate, for instance when used for psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Folic acid supplements have been studied as treatments for many other conditions, including heart disease, cancer (for example cervical cancer), chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer's disease and depression. So far, the results of these studies have been inconclusive.
Folic acid dose and instructions for use
The NHS says adults need 0.2mg of folate a day.
Women trying to conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy should take a daily folic acid supplement of 400mcg (0.4mg). Women with previous history (or if her partner has a history) of neural tube defect (eg spina bifida), or who have diabetes, epilepsy, coeliac disease, or who is very overweight, may be advised to take a higher daily dose.
Folic acid food sources
Good sources of folic acid (folate) are:
- Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, broccoli, and lettuce
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Fruits like lemons, bananas, and melons
- Fortified and enriched products, like some breads, juices, and cereals
Folic acid supplement information
Folic acid often comes in tablets or capsules. Folic acid is standard in multivitamins. Like any supplement, keep folic acid supplements in a cool, dry place, away from humidity and direct sunlight.
Folic acid is best absorbed if you're also getting sufficient amounts of vitamin C and other B vitamins.
Folic acid warnings
- Side effects. Folic acid is generally regarded as safe. Side effects are rare. High doses of folic acid might cause nausea, bloating, wind and insomnia.
- Interactions. High doses of folic acid may block the effects of some seizure medicines. If you take any regular medicines, ask how they will affect your intake of folic acid. Many - like diabetes drugs, sleeping pills and some antibiotics - can lower the amount of folic acid you absorb.
- Risks. Folic acid can sometimes mask the symptoms of serious and dangerous deficiencies of vitamin B12.