Folate, or as its synthetic version is called, folic acid, is a water-soluble B vitamin. It has long been praised for its cell-generating role and is a major component of prenatal vitamins as a result of its ability to prevent major birth defects, but in recent years it has also been determined to play a role in protecting the health and wellbeing of adults too. Studies have shown that folate can protect against a variety of cancers, can prevent heart disorders and stroke, helps to build muscle and form hemoglobin, and plays an essential role in mitigating the impact of mental and emotional disorders. It is also widely believed to slow age-related cognitive and memory decline.
What Is Folate?
Folate is a water-soluble B-complex vitamin that supports some of the body’s most vital functions, including the formation of red blood cells and the production of energy, the production of DNA and neurotransmitters and the detoxification of cells. It plays an important role in reducing homocysteine levels in the body — homocysteine is an amino acid that has been linked to both cardiovascular disorders and degeneration brain disorders.
We get folate from a variety of sources in our diet, and many of the foods that we eat contain naturally high levels. Though supplementation of folic acid is available, the top dietary sources including spinach, liver, yeast and leafy green vegetables. Other good dietary sources include breakfast cereals, cooked lentils, enriched pastas, dry-roasted sunflower seeds and eggs.
Folic Acid’s Role in Brain Health
Though folate plays an important role in many aspects of body health, its functions in the brain are just only beginning to be fully understood. Beyond its integral role in the proper formation of the nervous system during fetal development, folic acid’s importance has become evident in children and adolescents, as those suffering from metabolic abnormalities impacting folate transport have been diagnosed with a variety of developmental delays and cognitive deterioration, as well as behavioral and psychological problems. Adults who suffer from folate deficiency have been shown to have a higher risk of neuropsychiatric disorders, depression, and even epilepsy, and numerous studies have linked folic acid supplementation in the elderly to better control of homocysteine in the blood system, resulting in both reduced risk of heart problems and improvements of cognitive performance and memory and fending off Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.
- Folic Acid’s Role in Brain Development
Women who are pregnant are immediately put on a prenatal vitamin regimen that includes a folic acid supplementation because it helps to prevent neural tube defects including spina bifida and anencephaly. Research has shown that folic acid levels are essential in the very earliest stages of fetal development, which has lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recommend that women take the recommended daily dose of folic acid for at least a full month prior to conception and throughout the entirety of the first trimester in order to optimize its preventive effects. And a study conducted in the Netherlands showed that children between the ages of 6 and 8 who were born to women who tested as folate deficient during the earliest stages of their pregnancy were shown to have smaller brain volume and scored lower on language and visual spatial tests.
- Folic Acid’s Role in Severe Teen Depression
Groundbreaking research on teens diagnosed with severe depression has found that many for whom therapy, medication, and hospitalization have not worked are suffering from metabolic deficiencies that prevent their body from properly converting and absorbing folic acid. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, of 33 patients diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression, twenty-one suffered from a metabolic deficiency, with the most common deficiency being cerebral folate. Treatment with folinic acid, which is the form of folate found naturally in food, yielded dramatic improvement. According to Dr. Lisa Pan, a psychiatrist at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and author of the study, “If the folate isn’t there, you can’t make healthy white matter.” (Tonic)
- Folic Acid in Patients Diagnosed with Epilepsy
Patients diagnosed with epilepsy are frequently prescribed medications that induce low levels of red blood cell and serum folic acid, and that many of these patients subsequently experience negative effects on their mood. Treating epileptic patients with 5 mg supplements of folic acid over a sustained period of time results in improved initiative, ability to concentrate, alertness, mood and sociability.
- Folic Acid in Psychiatric Patients
The role of folic acid deficiency is particularly stark in patients diagnosed with depression. Multiple studies have shown that up to one third of psychiatric outpatients suffer from folate deficiency, and that their depression scores tend to be higher than those whose folic acid levels are normal. Though folic acid supplementation cannot stand alone as a treatment for depression and mood disorders, studies have shown that patients treated with antidepressants and folic acid experienced a significantly better response than those treated with antidepressants alone. (Psychology Today)
- Folic Acid and Memory
Though initial studies suggesting that folic acid might boost memory ability have since been disproven, there is significant evidence suggesting that it can help prevent or slow memory loss associated with aging. A study conducted by researcher Jane Durga of Wageningen University in the Netherlands showed that high doses of folic acid administered to healthy participants between the ages of 50 and 75 resulted in memory test scores comparable to those of people 5.5 years younger, and cognitive speed scores similar to people 1.9 years younger, representing a significant level of brain protection. (Science Direct)
- Folic Acid and the Aging Brain
The demographic group with the highest incidence of folate deficiency is the elderly. One of the key factors in brain atrophy in older individuals is an increased level of oxidative stress and DNA damage caused by increased levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is regulated by the presence of adequate folic acid. When folic acid levels drop, homocysteine levels increase, and the combination is a proven risk factor for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Low folate levels have also been associated with depression, dementia, apathy, and lack of motivation in this population. One study of a geriatric unit showed that its dementia patients had lower folate concentrations than any other diagnostic group in residence, and that there was a significant correlation between the patients’ folate concentrations and the severity of their dementia. Another study found that administering folinic acid to deficient patients yielded striking transformations in both mood and cognitive function. (British Medical Journal)