Folate Health Benefits
Folate Health Benefits
Keeping in mind that folate is just one of many essential nutrients and that it acts synergistically with other essential nutrients, it is nevertheless clear that folate is very important in its right because of the diverse important functions it performs in the body. Therefore, it is no surprise that consuming the recommended daily amounts of this vital nutrient can produce notable health benefits. Here are some of them.
Preventing birth defects
The critical importance of adequate folate intake during pregnancy to regulate embryonic and fetal development and protect newborn infants against neural tube defects has been demonstrated in numerous research studies. It is also the reason folic acid supplements are typically prescribed for pregnant women as an extra safeguard against folate deficiency. In fact, the FDA mandated practice since 1998 of fortifying all cold cereals and commercially baked products with folate is another preventative measure directly aimed at reducing the incidence of folate-deficiency caused birth defects. The practice has also added approximately 200 ug of folate to the average person’s diet.
Recent research now suggests that not only the mother’s folate status but also the fathers folate status may have an important bearing on the on the risk of the baby having serious birth defects. A study conducted at McGill University with mice showed a 30% increase in birth defects where there was a paternal folate deficiency than where there was not.
Improved nervous system functioning
Folate is also extremely important during lactation and the early months of a baby’s life. Ensuring that the newborn baby continues to get an adequate supply of folate is critical for cellular growth to proceed normally. However, folate’s important role in healthy nervous system functioning does not stop in infancy but continues throughout the lifespan. Adequate folate levels are necessary for proper brain functioning for people of any age. Studies have shown that folate slows down the effects of aging, helps prevent brain atrophy, and keeps the brain young and healthy.
Folate may also prove useful in preventing and treating such conditions as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, cervical dysplasia, organic brain syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease. A study of elderly patients in Korea found that those who had dementia had higher levels of homocysteine and lower levels of folate than those who did not have dementia. (Homocysteine, already known to be directly linked to the incidence of heart attacks and strokes, apparently negatively impacts the nervous system in a variety of other ways as well. For example, high levels of homocysteine can cause damage to the dopamine-producing brain cells. Homocysteine has also been implicated in vascular dementia and increased risk of brain infarcts and associated cognitive and memory impairment.)
Reduced risk of heart disease
Along with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6, folate helps prevent the build-up of homocysteine in the blood by facilitating the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. Homocysteine is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Numerous research studies demonstrate that a high intake of folic acid can inhibit the accumulation of this harmful substance and thereby lower the risk of major cardiac events like heart attack and stroke. There is evidence that people with elevated levels of homocysteine are 1.7 times as likely to develop heart disease and 2.5 times as likely to have a stroke.
The Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 80,082 women from 1980 to 1994, indicated that, after controlling for other cardiovascular risk factors, that the women with the highest dietary intake of folate and vitamin B6 had a significantly lower rate of heart disease than the women with the lowest folate, and vitamin B6 intake.
Elevated LDL cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart disease, and folate may help to keep LDL cholesterol levels down, too. A study of 124 individuals in Poland found that the blood levels of LDL cholesterol were significantly reduced after taking .4 mg of folic acid supplements for 12 weeks. These results were attributed to the corresponding drop in homocysteine levels.
Improving mood and alleviating stress
The ability of folate to reduce the blood levels of homocysteine, and thereby have a beneficial effect on both cardiovascular and cognitive functioning, may also help a person feel better emotionally. Excess homocysteine interferes with the production of the hormones serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which relieve stress, elevate a person’s mood and improve appetite and quality of sleep.
The relationship between low serum levels of folate and symptoms of depression and, conversely, the apparent beneficial effects of folate therapy in alleviating those symptoms have been demonstrated in multiple research studies. One study found that low folate blood levels were associated with poor responses to antidepressant treatment. Another study in which simultaneous therapy was given with folic acid and an antidepressant suggested that the addition of folate to the treatment enhanced the effects of the antidepressant alone in reducing depression-related symptoms. A review of multiple studies found that between 15% and 38% of adults diagnosed as having a depressive disorder were also diagnosed with low folate status. However, it should be noted that many females who suffer from depression also abuse alcohol, so excessive alcohol consumption, which also reduces blood folate levels, could have had a contaminating effect on the findings.
Preventing and treating skin disorders
Folate not only supports healthy skin, but may be beneficial in the both the prevention and treatment of a variety of skin disorders. Because the skin cells line the body’s external surfaces, they are especially vulnerable. Skin cells also have a short life span so they are dependent on folate for new cell formation. Folic acid deficiency has been linked to such problems as seborrheic dermatitis and vitiligo (loss of skin pigmentation). Folate may help correct these conditions as well as treat other skin disorders like acne, canker sores, and skin ulcers in the leg.
Preventing and treating diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disturbances
Folate is also very important to the proper functioning of the intestinal cells, which like the skin cells, have a short life. Without sufficient production and normal growth of new cells, which folate facilitates, digestion and absorption are hampered. On the other hand, if a folate deficiency is contributing to a gastrointestinal problem, correcting that deficiency should help to alleviate the symptoms.
Treating gingivitis and periodontal disease
A deficiency in folate can be a contributing factor in dental decay. Therefore, folate may be helpful in treating gingivitis and periodontal disease.
Improving eye health
Folate may improve blood flow to the eyes. Another likely benefit is reducing the risk of age-related macular degeneration. A Harvard Medical School study of women at risk for age-related macular degeneration found that those given vitamin B complex therapy (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12) had a lower incidence of age-related macular degeneration than the control group not given the supplement.
Helping to prevent cancer
Low levels of folate have been associated with increased risk of breast cancer in women. Conversely, adequate intake of folate in the diet is associated with reduced incidence of colon, stomach, pancreatic, and cervical cancer.
The same Nurses’ Health Study which revealed an inverse relationship between high folate intake and risk for cardiovascular disease also showed that women who took multivitamins containing folic acid for more than 15 years had a lower risk of developing colon cancer than women who took the supplements for a shorter period. Dietary folate alone was also related to a modest lowering of colon cancer risk. On the other hand, there was no clear evidence that taking folic acid for less than 15 years was any more beneficial than not taking folic acid all.
While the exact way folate may be beneficial is not clear, researchers believe that it is related to the role of folate in DNA and RNA synthesis and the prevention of unwanted mutations. However, the findings concerning whether folic acid supplements can provide the same cancer-fighting capabilities are equivocal.
Treating folate deficiency associated impaired immune system functioning and anemia
A folate deficiency does not need to be prolonged or severe to affect adversely overall health. Symptoms like fatigue, poor appetite, and lowered resistance to infections can set in quickly. However, when the deficiency is allowed to continue and progress, macrocytic megaloblastic anemia can develop, which is a very severe condition. Folic acid supplementation, under close medical supervision, can treat these problems.