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MEDICINE | SUPPLEMENTS

Folic acid acts as stand-in for folate

November 28, 2005|Elena Conis

Folate is a B vitamin found naturally in leafy greens, fruits, juices, beans and eggs; folic acid is a synthetic version of the vitamin. The body uses folate to make genetic material and new cells. Low levels can cause devastating birth defects in developing fetuses, slow the development of infants and children and lead to anemia in adults. In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration required that pasta, bread and flour manufacturers fortify the foods with folic acid. Nutrition experts now estimate that folic acid deficiency is rare in the U.S.

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Uses: Folic acid supplements are taken to prevent folate deficiencies and, most often, to ensure a healthy pregnancy. Some people take the supplements to prevent heart disease and cancer.

Dose: Most adults need 400 micrograms a day, according to the FDA, while pregnant women require as much as 600 daily micrograms, and young children only 150 to 200 micrograms. Most over-the-counter folic acid supplements and multivitamins provide 400 to 800 daily micrograms of the vitamin in its synthetic form. High folate intake doesn't usually pose a health risk.

Precautions: Folic acid supplements may mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency, a condition common in older adults that, left untreated, can cause permanent nerve damage.

Research: A Harvard University-led Nurse's Health Study of almost 90,000 women suggested that folic acid supplements may reduce the risk of colon cancer in women. A large-scale study published in the Annals of Epidemiology in 2001 suggested that men who got sufficient amounts of the vitamin from their diets were also at reduced risk of the disease.

Also, low folate intake can cause homocysteine to build up in blood, a condition that's been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Several studies, including a continuing, large-scale Finnish study, have demonstrated a link between low dietary folate and increased risk of heart disease.

None of the studies, however, proves that taking the supplements will keep heart disease or cancer at bay.

Dietary supplement makers are not required by the U.S. government to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on selecting a brand.

-- Elena Conis

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