Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)
Folic acid is another name for vitamin B9. While nutritionists keep telling everyone to eat their green, leafy vegetables, spinach contains one vitamin that some of the other vegetables (such as collard greens and chard) do not - folic acid.
Why is this vitamin so important? It helps the body to build muscles and keep itself strong and in good repair. Folic acid has become especially well known because it helps prevent birth defects and it can aid in preventing heart disease.
Why People Need Vitamin B9
Even though it goes undetected, the body is always making new cells to replace the old, worn out ones. Red blood cells are a good example here. Every day, the body makes millions of new red blood cells to replace the ones that do not work well any longer. A good supply of folic acid is required in order to make new cells that wear out, including skin cells, red blood cells, and the cells that line the small intestine.
The bottom line - the body needs folic acid for the normal maintenance and growth of every cell in the body.
Folic acid does not stop there. In recent years researchers have discovered that folic acid helps prevent heart disease, prevents birth defects, and may help to prevent cancer as well. The studies regarding vitamin B9 have been so overwhelming that many common grain products (including breakfast cereals, pasta, rice and bread) have been fortified with extra folic acid by order of the FDA.
The amount of folic acid added to these products is 140 mcg per 100 g of grain. One side effect of this addition which was not expected is it reduces a person's risk for stroke.
Vitamin B9 Requirements
The RDA for folic acid was reduced in 1989 by about half (to 200 mcg) due to studies showing that few people had vitamin B9 deficiencies. In fact, the lowered basic amount shows how the old RDAs gave people the bare minimum needed to prevent deficiency (not the amount needed for optimal health). At the time many physicians believed the RDA was way too low. Some doctors recommended most people get at least 400 mcg per day and noted that twice as much would be even better.
In the spring of 1998 the RDA for folic acid was raised back to 400 mcg, with the RDA for pregnant women becoming 600 mcg.
When the Body is Deficient
When the RDA for folic acid was lowered in the 1980s, studies showed that the average American was consuming only about 200 mcg a day in their diet. Shortages of vitamin B9 are now one of the most common vitamin deficiencies, particularly among women.
Some groups of people who could be deficient in this vitamin include:
- Pregnant women - Unborn babies grow quickly and deplete a lot of the mother's folic acid. Most physicians will prescribe a folic acid supplement during pregnancy.
- Breastfeeding women - Again, a lot of folic acid is passed from mother to baby. If the mother is not receiving enough, it is likely the baby is not, either.
- Alcohol abusers - Alcoholics typically have poor nutritional habits and do not receive enough B vitamins in general. Alcohol also seems to block proper absorption of folic acid.
- Cigarette smokers - This group of people is typically low in all the B vitamins, including B9.
- Birth control pill users - Women on the pill can be low in all the B vitamins, but especially in folic acid.
- Those who take Dilantin for seizures, Azulfidine for inflammatory bowel disease, or Proloprim for urinary tract infections. Many such drugs prevent the body from absorbing enough folic acid.
- Those who take Folex or Rheumatrex for rhematoid arthritis, psoriasis or inflammatory bowel disease. These drugs block the uptake of folic acid. Folic acid supplements may help patients tolerate these drugs in a better manner.
- Elderly peopleover 65 - Many elderly people do not get enough folic acid in their food, particularly if they live alone or in nursing homes.
Some people who suddenly become deficient in vitamin B9 may have cancer. Rapidly growing cancer cells use up a person's folic acid to help fuel cancer's uncontrolled division.
Symptoms of Vitamin B9 Deficiencies
Because folic acid deficiencies affect the growth and repair of the tissues in the body, the tissues with the fastest rate of cell replacement are the first ones to be affected. Thus, the blood and digestive tract are where the first signs of deficiency will likely appear.
Some of the symptoms of B9 deficiencies include:
- Nausea and loss of appetite
- Malnutrition (due to poor absorption of nutrients)
- Weight loss
- Sore tongue
- Irritability and mood swings
- Heart palpitations
Almost no one in developed countries will be seriouisly deficient in folic acid from diet alone. It is more likely that someone who is truly deficient in B9 will be an alcoholic or have some other serious health problem that prevents them from eating properly or digesting their food properly.
Foods Containing Vitamin B9
Folic acid is not found in many animal foods. The few good sources of B9 in animal foods include beef and chicken liver. Beans of all types have folic acid. Other good plant sources are asparagus and spinach. Most fruits also do not contain much folic acid, but the best choices are oranges, bananas and cantaloupe.
A lot of folic acid can be lost through cooking. Fresh vegetables should be cooked lightly in as little water as possible to preserve the vitamin B9.
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