The immune system and folic acid: Are you getting enough?

October 1, 2021 Providence Nutrition Team

[3 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Folic acid and folate support many important body functions, from making healthy red blood cells to supporting cell growth.

  • Everyone needs adequate folic acid and folate in their daily diet – not just pregnant women.

  • There are many great sources of folate and folic acid – from vitamins to fortified foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Folic acid has long been associated with a healthy pregnancy. But, folic acid is actually an extremely important vitamin for everyone, regardless of age or gender. It does many great things for our body – besides supporting the healthy development of babies.

Everyone needs adequate folic acid in the diet. This powerhouse nutrient does everything from helping boost your immune system – and fend off COVID-19 – to helping our bodies make DNA.

Learn more about folic acid, including who needs it and how to add it to your diet. Now, more than ever, it’s important to maintain a healthy and balanced eating plan. Eating foods that include essential vitamins and minerals can help keep your body in fighting order as the pandemic continues.

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is the synthetic (made in a lab) form of folate, a B vitamin that your body makes naturally. Folic acid is added to fortified foods or can be taken as a supplement. Folate can be found naturally in some foods, like leafy green vegetables and some fruits such as oranges and strawberries.

Folic acid and folate perform many important jobs in the body, including:

  • Make healthy new blood cells. Not having enough red blood cells can make you tired, weak and pale, and lead to anemia.
  • Support healthy cell growth and function. Your body is made of trillions of cells. Folate and folic acid help ensure those cells are growing and dividing properly.

What are the benefits of taking folic acid?

Those two important jobs – making red blood cells and supporting cell growth and function – impact almost every system in your body. In fact, research has suggested the following benefits of having enough folic acid every day. Folate may:

  • Reduce the risk of certain birth defects in babies. Studies repeatedly show that folic acid greatly reduces the risk of babies developing serious neural tube defects (including spina bifida, anencephaly and encephalocele) in utero. It can also support healthy brain development.
  • Reduce adults’ risk of heart disease and stroke. Folic acid supplements may help reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease, according to some studies. That’s because folic acid helps lower the levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  •  Helps with mental health. One of folate’s many jobs is to regulate BH4 in your body, which helps make dopamine and serotonin – two of the body’s “feel good” chemicals. Research has suggested that some individuals with depression have low levels of folate. Taking folic acid may help boost BH4 levels and facilitate dopamine and serotonin levels. It’s important to note that no study suggests folate or folic acid can cure depression, but it may be an important part of a treatment plan.
  • Maintain immunity as part of a balanced diet. Studies show that deficiency of folic acid and B12 can change our immune responses.

It might seem like a small thing, but folic acid (and really all vitamins and micronutrients) is part of the whole health picture–something Providence primary care physicians and nutritionists discuss with every patient.

Before beginning a new regimen of supplements or making diet changes, be sure to talk to your doctor about what is right for you. People with certain conditions may be deficient in certain nutrients, or may be at risk of overdoing it. Your doctor or nutritionist can help you manage your diet with a well-balanced nutritional plan.

Who needs folic acid?

The National Institutes of Health have published a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of folate/folic acid for age groups from birth to adult. They also make recommendations for women who are pregnant or lactating. These can be attained naturally through eating certain foods, or through supplements. Your doctor can help you determine if you are consuming the right amount of nutrients in your diet and can recommend supplements if necessary.

Fortunately, most people – with the exception of women who are pregnant or lactating – get enough folic acid and folate from their regular diet.

What are good sources of folic acid?

If you are looking to add more folic acid to your diet, experts recommend not getting more than 1,000 mcg of folic acid each day. Research isn’t clear, but excessive amounts of folic acid may be associated with a higher risk of certain diseases, like cancer recurrence.

It’s important to know that too much folic acid might cause problems.Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your folic acid intake.

Good sources of folate and folic acid include:

  • Prenatal vitamins - Pregnant women or women who may become pregnant should take prenatal vitamins with 600 mcg.

  • Fortified foods – Breakfast cereals, breads and other fortified foods are a great source of folic acid. Be sure to check the label and nutrition facts.
  • Green leafy vegetables – Spinach, broccoli and collard greens all pack a powerful punch when it comes to folate – the naturally occurring version of folic acid. Try a smoothie that includes enriched foods.
  • Fruit – Oranges, bananas, papaya and cantaloupe are also good sources of folate.
  • Legumes – Nuts and beans, including kidney beans, black-eyed peas and peanuts are also excellent sources of folate.

Bottom line, if you’re not sure you’re getting enough of any vitamin, mineral  or nutrient, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Together, you can make a plan to get your eating habits on the right track and find the resources, education and support you need to create lasting healthy habits.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

 

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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