Folic acid: why it is important and how to integrate it correctly

Folic acid: why it is important and how to integrate it correctly

Find out what to do to ensure your daily vitamin B9 needs, from a folate-rich diet to folic acid supplements

Folic acid supplements are one of the first prescriptions that your doctor compiles when you are trying to become pregnant or are already expecting a baby. However, there is still a bit of confusion surrounding this particular vitamin. An example? Often folic acid is identified with folate, but it is not the same thing: folate is the "version" of vitamin B9 naturally present in food, while folic acid is the synthetic version of the same vitamin found in supplements , supplements and fortified foods.

Let's see together what else there is to know about folic acid.


  • What is it and what is it for
  • Benefits
  • When and for how long to take it
  • Foods rich in folate
  • Side effects of folic acid

What it is and what it is for

Folic acid has a rather complex chemical name: it is called pteroylglutamic acid. But in the common sense, the terms "folic acid" and "vitamin B9" can be used interchangeably.

Folic acid and folate perform a very important function, indeed essential for the survival of the living being. Vitamin B9, in fact, contributes to what is called DNA synthesis. DNA synthesis means "DNA replication", that is the molecule that contains all the information necessary for a living being to be "created". Thus, it orchestrates the replication of cells and deals with the synthesis and repair of DNA.

For these reasons, a correct and sufficient intake of vitamin B9 is essential in every phase of life but especially when looking for a pregnancy and during the same: in fact, adequate levels of this vitamin play a fundamental role in the prevention of malformations of the fetus, especially defects of the neural tube (i.e. of the embryonic structure from which the brain, skull, spine and all structures of the central nervous system develop) such as spina bifida and anencephaly, and other congenital defects as a whole, such as congenital heart disease, lip cleft, urinary tract defects and limb reduction.

Furthermore, vitamin B9 is necessary for the health of children and adults as it helps prevent some forms of anemia, keeps the cardiovascular system and the nervous system healthy.


The benefits of folic acid for our body are many both in maintaining a good state of health and during growth.

Crucial in pregnancy, even before the pregnancy test is positive, to prevent birth defects, in adults and children, folic acid intervenes in the production of red blood cells, in metabolic functions and in the synthesis of proteins. A correct intake of vitamin B9 is also important for the balance of the nervous system (a deficiency, for example, can promote depression) and for cardiovascular well-being.

Regarding the preventive effect of folic acid on anxiety and depression: a 2012 study highlighted how folic acid can help our body produce what are called neurotransmitters and mood regulators, such as norepinephrine. serotonin and dopamine. A folic acid supplementation could, therefore, be useful in conjunction with the onset of the first depressive symptoms but also as a support to drug therapies (source: Augmenting Antidepressants With Folate: A Clinical Perspective. J Clin Psychiatry 2007).

When and for how long to take it

In "normal" conditions, that is not pregnant or breastfeeding, a correct and balanced diet, of the Mediterranean type, rich in whole grains, fruit (citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi), vegetables (spinach, artichokes, endive, chard, broccoli , cabbage) and legumes, i.e. all foods containing folate, is able to cover the recommended daily requirement, which – as explained by the Reference Intake Levels for the Italian population (LARN) – in the general population is equal to 0.4 mg .

During pregnancy, however, to reach the recommended intake levels of this vitamin, it would be necessary to triple the typical dietary intake: therefore, a daily supplementation is necessary, always to be evaluated with your doctor or gynecologist.

Specifically, as also reported by the indications of the National Institute of Health:

  • women seeking a baby should start taking folic acid supplements at least one month before conception, in the indicated dosage of 0.4 mg per day;
  • supplementation, in the dosage of 0.6 mg per day, should cover at least the first three months of gestation both in light of the fact that the most common and serious congenital defects arise between conception and the 8th-12th week, and considering that the fetus draws on maternal resources for its own development;
  • Finally, during breastfeeding, a dosage of 0.5 mg of folic acid per day is recommended, so as to replenish the quantities lost through breast milk.

In special cases (i.e. in pregnancies deemed to be at risk, in the presence of a positive family history for malformations, insulin-dependent diabetes, epilepsy), folic acid supplementation can even reach 4-5 mg per day. Obviously only and exclusively on prescription and under the supervision of the specialist.

Finally, it should be remembered that the intake of some drugs (barbiturates, estroprogestinics), alcohol abuse and particular conditions (diabetes, celiac disease, malabsorption diseases) can cause a reduction in the absorption of folic acid and a consequent increase in the requirement, satisfactory through the intake of supplements, supplements and / or the consumption of fortified foods, always to be taken under medical supervision.

Foods rich in folate

In nature, therefore, there are foods that are a source of vitamin B9, also called folate. Among the richest are:

  • green leafy vegetables (especially broccoli and spinach);
  • fruit (in excellent quantities in oranges and strawberries);
  • legumes (chickpeas are for example a good source of folate);
  • Liver and offal, some cheeses and eggs, however, to be consumed in limited and infrequent portions, especially considering that, being water-soluble, folates are lost with cooking for example (to an extent greater than 90%).

Side effects of folic acid

Obviously, any side effects are related to the intake of folic acid (the "synthetic" form of vitamin B9, found in supplements, supplements and fortified foods) and not folate.

The arguments regarding the skepticism on mandatory fortification focus on the various possible side effects, still being analyzed: contextual vitamin B12 deficiency and cognitive disorders (Morris et al., 2010), higher incidence of relapse of some neoplasms (such as colon).

As reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, it is good to pay attention to the supplementation of folic acid (as well as, for example, iron) during therapies to treat breast cancer or when you are genetically predisposed to this neoplasm.

In general, it is important to supplement folic acid only and exclusively under the prescription and advice of the attending physician or specialist. Absolutely avoiding do-it-yourself.

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