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Recent Folic Acid Studies Important For Women

folic acid and women

Women are often told they need to take folic acid to help prevent birth defects, but there are a few other important factors concerning this B vitamin they should know as well. Two recent studies highlight information about folic acid (found in supplements) and folate (found in foods) that could impact all women.

Folic acid, pregnancy and the sun
If you are woman who is planning to get pregnant or who is pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a daily intake of folic acid of 400 micrograms. Prenatal supplements typically contain this amount, and the B vitamin is also available as folate in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lentils and other legumes, and citrus.

Read about folic acid during pregnancy

Another vitamin that is essential for health is vitamin D, and sunlight is a primary source. Yet new research indicates that women of childbearing age who expose themselves to too much sun may reduce their folate levels.

The researchers examined 45 healthy women ages 18 to 45 and asked about their sun exposure. Overall, the authors found that those who had the most sun exposure also had levels of folate lower than those recommended during pregnancy, up to 20 percent lower.

In this study, the amount of exposure to the sun’s radiation was measured in joules. Therefore women who were exposed to more than 200 joules per day had the greatest declines in folate levels when compared with those who were exposed to less than 200 joules.

This study was conducted in Australia, where the National Health and Medical Research Council set the folic acid/folate needs of pregnant women at 500 micrograms. Therefore, the 20 percent reduction seen in this study would bring levels down to the same recommended amount in the United States.

Therefore, it seems to follow that women who take 400 micrograms of folic acid and who have significant sun exposure could be getting the equivalent of about 320 micrograms.

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The study’s authors encourage women to consult with their healthcare provider about their dietary and supplementation intake of this important nutrient. In the meantime, they agree more research is needed to clarify these findings.

Folic acid and breast cancer
While the prior study was concerned with not getting enough folic acid, other recent research looked at the possible effects of too much. One of those studies, published in PLoS ONE, reported that the amount of folic acid consumed by some women who have breast cancer or a history of the disease promoted the growth of the disease in rats.

Specifically, the scientists found that folic acid supplements at 2.5 to 5 times the daily requirement (400 micrograms) in women is a significant promoter of breast cancer cell activity in rats. The women who may be at risk are those who consume more than the recommended amount of folic acid/folate.

One reason this is of concern, according to Dr. Young-in Kim, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital, is that breast cancer patients and survivors often take multivitamin supplements. This source of the vitamin, along with eating foods containing folate, can cause them to exceed their folic acid needs.

Yet another concern is associated with folic acid and women: the use of alcohol. It’s been shown that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer, and folic acid can play a dual role.

On the one hand, a high intake of folate can reduce the risk of breast cancer among women who are regular consumers of moderate to high amounts of alcohol. On the other hand, the same is not true for women who drink little to no alcohol.

Read why folic acid is good for autism

The bottom line
Folic acid and/or folate play a significant role in the health of women before, during, and after pregnancy, and even if pregnancy is never a factor. Research seems to indicate that maintaining recommended levels of folic acid and/or folate is the safest route to take and that women should discuss their intake of this vital nutrient with a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Borradale D et al. Exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation is associated with a decreased folate status in women of childbearing age. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology2014; 131:90
Larsson SC et al. Folate and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2007; 99:64-76
Manshadi SD et al. Folic acid supplementation promotes mammary tumor progression in a rat model. PLoS ONE 2014; 9(1): e84635

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