Like biotin, folic acid is one of the many members of the B-vitamin family that prefers to go by a “regular” name rather than a numeric one. But technically, if you called out “hey, vitamin B9” in a crowd of nutrients, folic acid should turn around and wave at you. Actually, you could also say “folacin” or “folate” or the hard-to-say and spell “pteroylglutamic acid”; these are also names for folic acid. But for the sake of keeping it simple and preventing me from having to type out pteroylglutamic acid anymore, let’s just call it folic acid.
Folic acid is needed for both energy production and for the proper formation of red blood cells. It is also required for cell division and replication and it helps our bodies process protein. Some people have had luck taking folic acid for depression and anxiety, and because it boosts the formation of white blood cells, it can help our immune system perform at its peak.
Folic acid has also been shown to help regulate our levels of homocysteine. High levels of this amino acid have been linked to an increased chance of developing atherosclerosis. In ideal situations, homocysteine changes to innocuous amino acids, but it needs adequate amounts of folic acid plus vitamins B6 and B12 in order to do this. As is the case with many B-vitamins, being low in any or a combination of several leads to an increased risk of developing certain health conditions. In this case, being low on this hat-trick of B-vitamins usually means that homocysteine levels will remain higher than they should, which can lead to other health problems.
Finally, if you have ever been pregnant or if you are considering becoming pregnant, you have probably already heard plenty about folic acid. It helps to regulate the formation of nerve cells in the developing baby. Several studies have shown that taking 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, especially in early pregnancy, may prevent many of the neural tube problems that can happen in utero, like spina bifida and anencephaly. In order to be sure you have enough folic acid in your system during the very first days of pregnancy, most obstetricians suggest that if you are even thinking about trying to get pregnant, you should start taking a folic acid supplement. That way, if you do conceive, your baby will get the benefits of adequate folic acid levels before you probably even realize you are expecting.
If you are on birth control pills, you may need to take extra folic acid, and if you enjoy a cold beer or margarita, you may wish to take extra—alcohol tends to prevent its absorption. But if you have some cheese, chicken, mushrooms, salmon, tuna, asparagus or barley with your booze (and who doesn’t love a glass of white wine with a side of barley?), you can at least rest assured that the foods you have chosen contain decent amounts of folic acid. Or do what many women do—take a daily multivitamin or B-complex supplement that contains a decent amount of folic acid. Then you can rest assured you are getting enough of this vital nutrient.
Balch and Balch, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Third Edition, page 19