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Folate, another vitamin that is a part of the B complex group, is important for ensuring normal growth and development and maintenance of optimal health.
Folate is particularly critical during the early stages of human development. Pregnancy is recognized as a time when folate requirements are increased to sustain the demand on the body to grow healthy fetal, placental, and maternal tissue.
Folate was extracted and isolated from 4 tons of spinach in 1941 by Mitchell et al. The name was derived from the Latin word Folium for leaf. 18
Nutritional Bite link 18
Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin with a role as a regulating coenzyme for cellular metabolism and cell division. Folic acid helps form the building blocks of DNA and RNA needed for protein synthesis in human cells. Rapidly growing tissues – such as those of a fetus – and rapidly regenerating cells – like red blood cells and immune cells – have an especially high need for folic acid.
Folic acid requirements increase during pregnancy. Deficiencies of folic acid during pregnancy are associated with low birth weight and an increased incidence of neural tube defects, including anencephaly and spina bifida. In one study, women at high risk of giving birth to babies with neural tube defects lowered their risk by as much as 72% by taking folic acid supplements prior to and during pregnancy. Medical experts, other healthcare professionals, and the March of Dimes recommend that all women of childbearing age supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid per day. Such supplementation would protect against the formation of neural tube defects during the time between conception and when pregnancy is discovered. If a woman waits until after pregnancy to begin taking folic acid supplements, it is likely too late to prevent a neural tube defect.
Folic acid deficiency has also been associated with high homocysteine levels and an increased risk for stroke, heart disease, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. A folic acid deficiency may also result in a form of anemia (which can be remedied with supplementation).
The best food sources appear to be vegetables (asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, legumes), nuts, and seeds.
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Arguably, no conventional nutrient has undergone as much of a research renaissance in recent years as folate. Many people are familiar with the name of this B complex vitamin, and it has long been recognized as a key nutrient in human health. Low intakes of folate can have devastating effects, ranging from birth defects to blood diseases and possibly even cancers.
Much more recent in our understanding of this critical B vitamin is its many different forms in food, and its influence far beyond birth defects, blood diseases, and cancers.
Brain and Nervous System Health
Folate has long been known to help support production of nervous system function, and in particular, production of messaging molecules that are used by nerves to send signals throughout out body. More recently, however, research has broadened our understanding in this area of folate benefits.
In what has come to be named the BH4 Cycle (where is an abbreviation for tetrahydrobiopterin), researchers have verified a close connection between production of multiple neurotransmitters (with special emphasis on serotonin and dopamine) and availability of folate. In fact, part of the molecule for which this BH4 Cycle is named (dihydrobiopterin, or BH2) can itself be readily converted into a form of folate (dihydrofolate). In addition, researchers now know that BH4 cross over the blood brain barrier using the same transport mechanism as folate.
Overall Cardiovascular Support
During the past 10 years, research on the role of folate in nervous system support has greatly overlapped with folate research as it relates to support of the cardiovascular system. In fact, it might be hard to find an area of metabolic research that has generated more excitement that this overlapping area of folated-related events critical for health of our cardiovascular and nervous systems.
The overlap begins with the ability of adequate dietary folate to help keep blood levels of homocysteine in check. Homocysteine (Hcy) is a well-documented marker for cardiovascular disease that when excessive, represents a clearly increased risk for a variety of cardiovascular problems. (Hyperhomocysteinemia is the name of the condition for high Hcy in the blood.) Optimal levels of blood folate in one particular form (5-methyltetrahydrofolate, or 5-MTHF) can directly help lower Hcy levels. By helping to keep Hcy levels in check, healthy intake of folate can help lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
The benefits of folate for lowered cardiovascular risk do not stop with Hcy, however. Balanced levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the blood are equally well-established as being important for cardiovascular health. NO helps to regulate many cardiovascular functions, and appropriate levels of NO are considered protective again high blood pressure, excessive clumping of platelet cells, and other key aspects of blood flow.
Specific Support of Red Blood Cell Production
It would be wrong to leave the topic of folate and cardiovascular health without making a special note about red blood cell production. Folate is one of many nutrients necessary for the production of red blood cells. These cells carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. Along with iron, copper, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6, a deficiency of folate can impair blood cell production.
When women deficient in dietary folate become pregnant, the developing fetus is at increased risk for neural tube defects, a developmental condition that adversely affects nervous system development in the fetus. These neural tube defects are potentially devastating and can often cause loss of pregnancy.
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