Folate might not be as well-known to the average person as some of the other essential vitamins, including the other B-complex vitamins, but that does not mean that it is any less necessary to the optimal functioning of the human body. In fact, not being aware of how vital it is to include adequate amounts of folate in the diet has contributed to the large incidence of deficiency and serious medical problems associated with it. The following are the major functions of folate and the reasons why everyone from infancy to late adulthood needs it.
Folate is an essential component for many chemical reactions that take place in the body. None of these vital body processes can take place the way they are supposed to in the absence of folate.
- DNA synthesis and normal cell growth and reproduction
- Red blood cell formation and maturation
- Neural Tubes
- Platelet formation
- Protein metabolism
Folate is required for the growth, maintenance and repair of all of the body’s tissues, but it is especially important during periods of rapid growth and development in the fetus stage. DNA must be resynthesized each time a new cell is created. However, this cannot happen in the absence of folate because tetrahydrofolate (THF), the active form of folate, is needed to make purines and pyrimidines, two essential components for the formation of the nucleic acids for DNA and RNA. Therefore, one of the most important functions of folate is facilitating a healthy pregnancy and preventing birth defects. An adequate supply of folate is a must for normal growth and development of the nerve cells in the fetus. Conversely, a deficiency in this vital nutrient during pregnancy is associated with decreased nucleic acid synthesis and impaired cell division, which in turn can cause low birth weight and impaired growth in the newborn infant, along with serious neurological damage. Folate deficiency during pregnancy is associated with a significantly increased probability of the infant being born with a neural tube defect.
Preventing neurological defects in the developing infant is only one of the reasons why folate is so important to the healthy functioning of the nervous system. Whether the individual is pregnant or not, folate deficiency has been linked to a wide variety of nervous system problems, including mental fatigue, non-senile dementia, restless leg syndrome, neuromas in the hands and feet, irritability, depression, memory problems, confusion, and insomnia
Another situation in which the importance of folate is clearly apparent is in supporting the growth of skin cells and other cells that, like skin cells, have a short life span. A wide variety of skin problems that appear to be associated with folate deficiency can probably be prevented by including more folate in the diet.
Folate also supports the production of red blood cells and prevents the development of a condition called macrocytic megaloblastic anemia. Folate, in the form of folic acid, plays a key role in enabling red blood cells to develop fully so that they will be capable of transporting oxygen to the body’s tissues. Folic acid facilitates RBC production by carrying the carbon molecule to the larger heme molecule, which transports oxygen to the tissues.
Other chemical reactions taking place in the body which depend on the presence of folate indicate its important role in amino acid metabolism. Along with vitamin B12 and vitamin C, tetrahydrofolic acid (THFA), a coenzyme for folic acid, facilitates the breakdown and utilization of protein. Together, with vitamin B12, THFA assists in a variety of amino acid conversions, one of which the conversion of homocysteine to methionine, is noteworthy for its beneficial effect on the heart.