Your body needs folate to produce new cells and to make DNA and RNA -- your genetic blueprints. It's also necessary for protein metabolism.
Folate is a water-soluble vitamin found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, oranges, strawberries, legumes and whole grains. Beef liver, spinach and black-eyed peas are among the highest sources of folate.
Folic acid is a form of folate used in dietary supplements and fortified breads and cereals. It's absorbed better than folate, but your body metabolizes it and uses it the same way as the natural form.
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies sets the daily Dietary Reference intakes for vitamins and minerals. These amounts are approximately what a healthy person needs. If you have any health issues or problems with your diet, you should consult with a health care provider.
The DRIs for folate vary by age but not by gender, except in the case of pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Dietary Reference Intakes
1 to 3 years: 150 micrograms per day
4 to 8 years: 200 micrograms per day
9 to 13 years: 300 micrograms per day
14 to 18 years: 400 micrograms per day
19+ years: 400 micrograms per day
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: 600 micrograms per day
Your body normally contains anywhere from 10 to 30 total milligrams of folate, but since it's a water soluble vitamin, it's needs to be frequently replaced.
Full-blown folate deficiency isn't common, and it's usually due to alcoholism, poor diet or diseases that cause a reduction in absorption. A deficiency may result in folate anemia - but as long as you eat a healthy balanced diet you should get a sufficient amount.
While everyone needs some folate, it's particularly important for women who are pregnant because it helps to prevent a birth defect called spina bifida and other neural tube defects. These defects occur early on in pregnancy, so if you're thinking about becoming pregnant (or not actively preventing pregnancy) you should make sure you get enough every single day.
Folate helps your body convert homocysteine into methionine. Having high levels of homocysteine in your blood has been linked to a greater risk of heart and blood vessel disease. It's important to note, however, that although taking folic acid supplements reducing homocysteine levels it does not appear to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The IOM has set 1,000 micrograms per day as the tolerable upper limit for folic acid for adults. Going above this amount may not cause any health problems but it can mask a vitamin B-12 deficiency. And although folic acid supplements have been touted for their health effects with diseases such as cancer, heart disease and dementia, but research hasn't shown any beneficial results in these cases.
Also Known As:
vitamin B9, pteroylglutamic acid, folacin
American Heart Association. "Homocysteine, Folic Acid and Cardiovascular Disease." Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Homocysteine-Folic-Acid-and-Cardiovascular-Disease_UCM_305997_Article.jsp.
Institute of Medicine, National Academies. "Daily Reference Intakes - Vitamins." Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/Homocysteine-Folic-Acid-and-Cardiovascular-Disease_UCM_305997_Article.jsp.
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. "Folate - Dietary Supplement Factsheet.'' Accessed June 28, 2014. . http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/