There are a few nutrients that are key to a healthy pregnancy, and folate is a big one. I’m sure you have heard folate and folic acid before, but what is the difference, if any, and what is it good for? By the end of this post you will know why you need it, what type to look for, what foods contain it, and hopefully a bit more.

The What

There is definitely a difference between folate and folic acid, and it is good to remember the names and what they are for when/if you are looking for supplements. Folate is the natural, food source of this vitamin. It is water-soluble and readily absorbed in the body. Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic version used for supplements and fortified foods. (Folate can be found in supplements too. It is just food sourced.) To make things fun, these terms are used interchangeably quite often.

Uses in the Body

This vitamin also goes by the name vitamin B9, and being a B vitamin makes it important for nerve health.

Other functions include:

  • aids in red blood cell production (which means it helps with energy and fatigue),
  • helps with the metabolism of protein,
  • helps metabolize hormones in the liver helping the body rid itself of excess estrogen,
  • plays a role in growth and reproduction of all cells,
  • is capable of reducing high blood levels of homocysteine (high homocysteine has been found to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.)

When looking at its role in the growth and reproduction of all cells, it is no wonder why this vitamin is extra important in pregnancy, a time of rapid growth. It is suggested to take this vitamin before you get pregnant to build up your stores. Your liver can amazingly store 6 to 9 months worth of folate, so you might as well take advantage. By the same rationale, folate is necessary in increased amounts when a woman is breastfeeding to help with the little one’s growth.

Another great thing this nutrient does for women who want to get pregnant is to help the liver metabolize hormones. When the liver is overused, it cannot do all of the amazing things that it normally can. An example of this is if it cannot metabolize estrogen properly, it will result in estrogen dominance in the body which creates lower levels of progesterone. This can make it difficult to stay pregnant. Folate helps balance hormones which aids fertility. That’s great news!

Signs of Deficiency

As with any nutrient, there are things you can look for that may show you are deficient. Before I list them, I want to say that if you think you may be deficient, testing from your healthcare provider is the next best step, because these can all be signs of many things. It is best to know for sure.

For folate, some signs are:

  • a sore, red tongue,
  • anemia,
  • digestive disturbances,
  • fatigue,
  • insomnia,
  • memory problems,
  • paranoia,
  • weakness,
  • and birth defects in one’s offspring.

Deficiencies tend to show up more in women on oral contraceptives. This is one great reason to give your body time to adjust after coming off hormonal contraceptives. Your body needs time to get back to its natural state, and folate will help.

Alcoholics, the elderly, people with digestive issues, as well as those on certain medications like sulfa antibiotics, tetracyclines, and epileptic drugs can have/create folate deficiencies as well. It is good to watch for the signs.

B vitamins are a special group and should be treated that way. It is always a good practice to take a B vitamin complex as opposed to singling them out because as certain Bs increase in your body, others may go down and you may not get any signs that this is happening. At the extreme end, excess folate will mask the early symptoms of a B12 deficiency. Taking all the B vitamins together will avoid this.

Being a vegan, we know how important vitamin B12 is to our health. It is not always an easy nutrient to get when you are not eating animal products or enough of the whole foods we require. A good B vitamin complex is always worth it.

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Foods Rich in Folate

Here is a list of all the great foods that contain folate.

An easy way to remember one source of folate is to connect it to the word foliage. It may sound silly, but I find this an easy one to remember. Green leafy veggies are a great source.

  • spinach,
  • kale,
  • beet greens,
  • chard,
  • asparagus,
  • broccoli, etc.

Other foods include:

  • brewer’s yeast,
  • corn,
  • lima beans,
  • chickpeas,
  • green peas,
  • sweet potatoes,
  • artichokes,
  • parsnips,
  • lentils,
  • cauliflower,
  • whole grains,
  • mushrooms,
  • parsley.

Fruits:

  • oranges,
  • berries,
  • cantaloupe,
  • pineapple,
  • banana.

A delicious list! Folate can also be made by our delightful intestinal bacteria, so if you have a healthy colony, you automatically have another great source.

Folate works synergistically in the body with vitamin C and B12, so when making a meal, it is good to add vitamin C-rich foods with foods that contain folate. When looking at a prenatal or multivitamin, see whether it contains all three.

When you are creating your delicious meals with folate, remember that it is a water-soluble vitamin. This means that it is easily destroyed by heat, light, and low pH. The fresher your food and the less processing it goes through, the more folate it contains.

Supplements

Let’s say you went to your healthcare provider, and they confirmed that you have a folate deficiency. You may choose to take a supplement as well as choosing folate-rich foods. Women who are on oral contraceptives will want to pay close attention to their folate levels as well because birth control may increase the need of this vitamin.

When choosing a supplement, look for folate as opposed to folic acid. There is debate on this, but I would rather have the food source than a man-made one. There is a gene mutation that doesn’t allow you to metabolize folic acid, and if you don’t know that you have this, taking folic acid will create a deficiency (more on this topic in a later post).

As for the amount you need, some references say 400 mcg and others say 800. There are no toxicity symptoms up to 1000mcg/day. This is a good reason to have your levels tested so you are supplementing the right amount. Folate is an expensive ingredient for supplements, so if you see 800 mcg on the label, it should tell you that the product is good. When a company goes above and beyond, that’s an amazing thing.

I mentioned this earlier, but I think it’s worth saying again. B vitamins are best when taken together in the same supplement. They all work together in the body and can be thrown out of balance if taken singularly. It is cool because we see this in our foods. Foods high in one B vitamin will contain others as well. When in doubt, mimic nature!

Quick Tips:

  1. Choose the folate form
  2. 400 – 800 mcg/day
  3. B vitamin complex

Last Thoughts

Folate is a necessary nutrient for pregnancy, and it is possible to get enough through food, if your body is healthy. Preconception is a great time to be more conscious of your folate intake. In the circumstances where you are deficient or just want to make sure you are getting enough, good-quality supplements are a great way to go.

Let me know what you think of this post below. I would love to hear from you.

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