Folic acid and B vitamins

What are folic acid and B vitamins, where do they come from and why are they recommended for women wishing to conceive. Published in IVF Friends Newsletter in 2006.

Folic acid is a member of the B complex vitamins. Its name comes from the Latin for foliage or leaf because it is found in leafy green vegetables. The word vitamin is derived from the Latin for life (vita) and amine (which is an organic substance) because these substances are vital for life.

Folic acid, as with all the B vitamins, is a water soluble vitamin. This means that it is excreted in the urine and not stored in any appreciable amounts in the human body, which in turn, means that it needs to be consumed on a daily basis. It is found in many fresh foods, in particular, green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, potatoes, almonds, sprouted seeds, whole grains, wheat germ, beetroot, avocado, sweet corn, Brewers yeast, soya beans and lima beans and liver. Most refined grain products, such as breads and cereals, are fortified with folic acid because the refining process depletes the grain of folic acid by removing the husk. Heating and cooking can also destroy this vitamin, so it is important to consume these foods raw or only slightly cooked (perhaps not the liver!).

The recommended daily allowance of folic acid for women wishing to conceive is 400 to 500mcg, although some experts recommend more like 800mcg. There is very little toxicity associated with high doses of this vitamin, because it is readily excreted. It has been noted that some neurological problems can occur associated with long term dosages in the order of 30mg per day. It is possible, however, that dosage with folic acid can mask a deficiency of vitamin B12. A deficiency in either of these vitamins can lead to the same type of anaemia, but with a B12 deficiency it can also lead to serious neurologic problems. Taking folic acid may improve the anaemia, but the neurologic symptoms may progress. Several conditions and drugs cause an increased demand for folic acid by interfering with its absorption or function. These include alcoholism, which diminishes stores and interferes with absorption, and drugs such as some anti-convulsants, aspirin and other NSAIDS, some cholesterol-lowering drugs and, especially, the oral contraceptive pill.

B vitamins are part of a complex symphony and rely on each other for their absorption and functioning. It is for this reason that B vitamins should, for the most part, be taken together in a complex.

So What Does Folic Acid Actually Do?

It may be a shorter list to say what it doesn’t do!

Folic acid is involved in two of the most fundamental processes of life, that is, the production of cellular energy and the synthesis of DNA. These two processes allow the body’s cells to stay alive and perform their particular function and to reproduce.

It is especially involved in the growth and production of red blood cells, and anaemia can be a symptom of deficiency, which has also been linked to leukaemia.

It is well researched that supplementation of folic acid by pregnant women helps to prevent neural tube defects in their baby – reducing the risk by up to 75%. The neural tube in the embryo becomes the brain and spinal cord, and begins to develop very early in the pregnancy. Because these cells are rapidly dividing, it is very important to provide sufficient folic acid from the time of conception. Much of the increased need occurs before a woman knows whether she is pregnant or not, so it is especially important that anyone who is trying to conceive take folic acid every day.

Folic acid stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which is essential for the breakdown and absorption of proteins from food. It also works with Vitamins B12 and C to form proteins in the body from the ‘building block’ amino acids derived from food.

It is required for the absorption of iron and calcium, is essential for the health of the entire nervous system, protects against cancer (particularly in smokers), is helpful in treating mental retardation associated with fragile X syndrome, and is beneficial in the treatment of atherosclerosis.

And if all that’s not enough, it improves the condition of hair and skin!

Our knowledge of the importance of folic acid in cell division has led to the production of several drugs that utilize this information. One is the anticancer drug, methotrexate and the antibiotic, Trimethoprim. Methotrexate binds to an enzyme that is necessary for the metabolism of folic acid. It thereby prevents the formation of nucleic acids, part of DNA, so cells cannot reproduce. The effect is that rapidly dividing cancer cells can no longer divide. Trimethoprim blocks the synthesis of folic acid, but its bacteriocidal action comes about because bacteria, unlike humans, produce their own folic acid. When Trimethoprim is present the bacteria cell cannot produce folic acid and therefore cannot divide.

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