Folate – Not Just for Pregnancy

Folate occurs naturally in some plant foods but in its synthetic form, it’s known as vitamin B9 and folic acid. It mostly tends to be talked of in relation to pregnancy but despite this, it is a vitamin vital for everyone – and many people in the UK are at risk of deficiency.  

Why do we need it? 

Folate is vital for normal cell division and the nervous system and functions with vitamin B12 in the formation of healthy red bloods cells. It also works with vitamins B6 and B12 to maintain healthy levels of homocysteine, an amino acid which at high levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Folate is also required for the development of the neural tube in an embryo and deficiency can result in defects such as spina bifida.  

How much do we need? 

Adults require 200 micrograms of folate per day but women who are planning a pregnancy are advised to take 400 micrograms per day, and continue 12 weeks into their pregnancy. Our bodies are unable to store it for long, so it is essential that adequate amounts are consumed every day. It is also important not to exceed 1,000 micrograms (1 milligram) of folate daily, unless recommended by a doctor as consuming high amounts can mask the symptoms of B12 deficiency, which if not identified and treated may result in damage to the nervous system.  

Are we getting enough? 

The most recent government survey which looked at blood and serum folate levels of people in the UK suggests that many are at risk of deficiency and anaemia. A shocking 75 per cent of women of childbearing age had levels associated with increased risk of neural tube defects in pregnancy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their babies would be born with this defect but that they would be considered to be at a higher risk. Over a third of men and around 40 per cent of teenagers had levels indicating possible deficiency.  

Signs of deficiency 

Folate deficiency can result in a form of anaemia that results in the body producing unusually large red blood cells which have a reduced to transport oxygen. The result can be a lack of energy, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, sore tongue, pins and needles, depression, confusion and problems with memory.  

Do I need a supplement? 

Those consuming a healthy, balanced, vegan diet should obtain all the folate they need but women planning a pregnancy, or in their first 12 weeks of pregnancy, are still advised to take a supplement.

People’s poor levels of folate have renewed calls for the UK to join the many other countries that fortify foods with folic acid in order to decrease the risk of neural tube defects. To do so would allow low-cost foods such a bread and pasta to provide a dose of this vital vitamin. One important reason for this is that currently, around half of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned and many women consume amounts of folate considerably below the recommended levels. 

Good sources 

The words folate and folic acid are derived from the Latin word, folium, which means leaf – and this gives a pretty good clue as to where you can obtain it. In addition to obvious green vegetables such as asparagus, Brussel’s sprouts, spinach, kale, white cabbage, pak choi, rocket, broccoli, lettuce and peas, other good sources include nutritional yeast, soya products such as edamame, fermented tempeh, soya beans, soya milk and tofu. Marmite, fortified breakfast cereals, oranges, beetroot and lentils also contain it. A varied, vegan diet containing the above foods will cover your needs. 

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