Folate and folic acid are both types of vitamin B9, and many people believe that they are the same thing. In reality, they are quite different and play different roles in the body. Folate is a naturally occurring form of vitamin B9, while folic acid is a synthetic version that is often added to foods or taken in the form of supplements. The fact that they are different forms can affect the way that they are used in the body. This article looks at some of the main differences between folate and folic acid.
The Role of Vitamin B9 in the Body
Low levels of folate are linked to birth defects, and this is often what people associate with this nutrient. It has plenty of other roles in the body though. Vitamin B9 is also used to create and repair DNA and make red blood cells.
Folate is also linked to the nervous system and the cardiovascular system. It can help to regulate levels of homocysteine in the blood, which could otherwise become a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Folate deficiency can mean that there is a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, although more research needs to be done to confirm whether this is definitely the case.
Folic acid is strongly associated with pregnancy, but it’s actually folate that is more important, especially given the health risks that are now being linked to excess folic acid.
How Folate and Folic Acid Are Metabolized
It has been suggested that the body more readily absorbs folic acid than folate, but that does not necessarily mean that it is used better.
One of the main differences between folate and folic acid is the way that the body converts them. Folic acid is not converted as easily as folate, and unlike folate, it often fails to be turned into vitamin B9 in the digestive system. Instead, the liver tends to be involved in the conversion, and the process is more of a challenge.
This can mean that folic acid that has not been fully metabolized can build up in the body, even when it is only consumed in reasonably small amounts. Folate is generally excreted through your urine if you consume more than you need, whereas this does not happen with folic acid and the slower conversion gives it plenty of opportunities to build up in your blood.
Folic acid that has not been appropriately metabolized has been linked to a higher risk of cancer (particularly colon and prostate cancers) and may also affect immunity. It is also thought that having a lot of folic acid in the blood can make symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency less obvious.
A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition has suggested that taking folic acid alongside other vitamins can help it to be metabolized more efficiently, particularly other B vitamins.
Consuming Folate and Folic Acid
Folate is much more easily metabolized by the body and is found naturally in many foods, particularly leafy green vegetables. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that “folate” is derived from “folium,” which is the Latin word for “leaf.” Other good sources include Brussels sprouts, asparagus, avocado, lettuce, egg yolk, sweet potato, lentils, beans, bananas, and almonds.
Eating foods that are rich in folate can avoid the need to consume folic acid, which also takes away any concerns about unmetabolized folic acid. Ideally, you should be looking to get around 400 mg of folate every day, preferably from foods.
It is generally recommended that you do not consume more than 1000mg of folic acid per day to avoid health problems. If you eat a lot of foods that are heavily fortified with folic acid and take supplements, you could be consuming a lot more folic acid than you realize. Eating foods that are rich in folate should give you the amount that you need, and any excess is usually excreted through your urine, which makes it very unlikely that you would consume enough folate to cause problems.
Signs of a Folate Deficiency
Although anemia is much more closely linked to iron deficiency, it can also be one of the signs of a folate deficiency.
Birth defects are also linked to folate deficiencies when pregnant women have not been consuming enough folate prior to conception and in early pregnancy. Spina bifida is one of the birth defects that can sometimes occur. If women get enough folate during their pregnancy, joint research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Peking suggests that up to 85 percent of birth defects can be prevented. Premature birth can also sometimes be linked to a lack of folate.
Supports Bone Metabolism by Lowering Homocysteine
Homocysteine is an amino acid that requires folate and other B vitamins to convert it to methionine–an essential amino acid that plays a key role in metabolism. When there’s an insufficient level of B vitamins, including folate, to convert homocysteine into methionine, the body has a problem. High homocysteine levels have been linked to several chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. Elevated homocysteine has also been shown to lower bone density and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
In animal studies, folate deficiency has been shown to cause higher homocysteine levels, increased oxidative stress and reduced bone blood flow. When bone blood flow is affected, bone diseases such as osteoporosis can occur due to lack of nutrient delivery to the bones. Low folate levels are associated with the deterioration of bone tissue. On the other hand, studies have linked folic acid supplementation with improved bone mineral density and a reduced risk of fracture, suggesting that folate is critical for skeletal health.
Improves Joint Health
By lowering homocysteine levels, folate also seems to help improve joint health and reduce the risk of arthritis, which has been linked to elevated homocysteine. In a 10-day study, arthritis patients either took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) with folic acid and vitamin B12. Although NSAIDs such as Aspirin are typically used to treat arthritic pain, Tylenol with B vitamin supplementation was found to reduce joint pain and joint tenderness more effectively.
This research suggests that keeping folate levels sufficient could help prevent joint problems like arthritis. In people with arthritis who are taking methotrexate as a conventional medical treatment, folic acid supplementation can be used to reduce side effects, including nausea and abdominal pain.
Acts as an Antioxidant
Folate is an antioxidant. Thus, it helps protect your body’s organs at a cellular level from free radicals-unstable molecules that damage DNA when left unchecked by antioxidants. Lab studies show that folic acid, the supplement form of folate, neutralizes free radicals as effectively as vitamins C and E. In animal studies, folic acid was shown to inhibit damage done to DNA and mitochondria in cells due to its antioxidant ability.
Aids in Red Blood Cell Production
Folate plays a role in the division and replication of red blood cells. Folate deficiency can cause megaloblastic anemia, in which you have fewer and larger red blood cells. A low red blood cell count is associated with fatigue and cognitive decline because red blood cells are responsible for the transportation of oxygen through the body. However, folic acid supplementation has been shown to help reverse this condition by increasing the body’s red blood cell count.
Slows Aging of the Mind and Body
In various ways, folate can help slow the natural progression of aging in both the mind and the body. A survey of older people found that higher folate intakes were associated with a reduced rate of age-related hearing loss. Another study found that seven years of folic acid supplementation reduced the risk of age-related macular degeneration–the leading cause of blindness.
Folic acid supplementation was even shown to lengthen lifespan in animal models. It worked by reducing oxidative stress, which plays a significant role in the natural progression of aging and the pathology of most age-related diseases.
Folate also plays a role in preserving the aging mind. Research shows that low folate levels are linked to faster cognitive decline and a higher prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, among elderly persons. Without enough folate, the cerebral cortex becomes prone to degeneration, which affects learning and memory. On the other hand, folate supplementation has been shown to preserve memory and function and prevent oxidative damage to the brain.