Diet & Exercise: Essential nutrients: B9 important vitamin for preventing birth defects

Published 8:00 am Friday, March 30, 2018

Folate, also known as folic acid, folacin, and vitamin B9, was discovered between 1931 and 1943, and is on the World Health Organizations List of Essential Medicines, the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.

The word “folic” comes from the Latin word “folium” which means leaf. This comes from the fact that many leafy vegetables are such rich sources of folate.

Folate is the bioavailable, natural form of vitamin B9. Folic acid, while still utilized by the body, is the synthetic form of vitamin B9, and is used in supplement form, and to fortify foods.

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Folate is an essential nutrient which means humans can’t make it, and therefore must get in from their diet or in supplement form.

One of folate’s biggest contributions is the limiting of defects during pregnancy and child birth. Birth defects caused by folate deficiency include neural tube defects, which include the brain, spine and spinal cord. The two most common neural tube birth defects are spina bifida and anencephaly.

In spina bifida, the fetal spinal column doesn’t close completely, and in anencephaly, the baby is born without parts of the brain or skull. If you’re pregnant or might become pregnant it’s critically important you get adequate amounts of folate or folic acid.

Here are a few other benefits of folate.

1. It improves heart health. Folic acid removes homocysteine. Homocysteine is a homologue, or counterpart of the amino acid cysteine, and is one of the major contributors of heart attacks at early ages. Folate also assists by regulating the amount of cholesterol in the heart, thereby helping prevent other heart disorders.

2. Folate helps build muscle, by helping convert arginine (an amino acid) to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a molecule that is responsible for blood flow, oxygen delivery, glucose uptake and muscle growth.

3. Folic acid reduces risk of cancers, including cervical cancer, colon cancer and lung cancer.

4. It prevents stroke. By removing homocysteine, folic acid also helps prevent stroke. Homocysteine may also lead to weakening of bones, which could lead to fractures, yet another benefit from this nutrient.

5. Folic acid is necessary for the formation of red blood cells. In addition, folate aids the body in repairing skin cells and cells of the small intestine, because of its ability to help the body replace old cells with new ones.

Vitamin B9 also increases hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin is the iron-containing protein in the blood that helps carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. This permits aerobic respiration to provide energy to function the process called metabolism.

Recommended daily allowances of folic acid are 0-6 months: 65 micrograms/day; 7-12 months: 80 micrograms/day; 1-3 years: 4-8 years: 200 micrograms/day; 9-13 years: 300 micrograms/day; 14 years and up: 400 micrograms/day; pregnant women: 600 micrograms/day; breastfeeding women: 500 micrograms/day.

Folate is not known to be toxic, and even doses are considered safe, however, as with any B vitamin, it should be taken in a complex (along with other B vitamins), because these vitamins work best synergistically, or together. 

Rich food sources include spinach, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, lentils, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, black beans, romaine lettuce, asparagus, papaya, broccoli, oranges, grapefruit and strawberries.

Diet or fitness question? Email me at, or text to 864-494-6215.  David Crocker, of Landrum, has been a nutritionist and master personal trainer for 30 years.