Vitamin B9 (also known as folic acid) is a water soluble vitamin and part of the B complex group (eight vitamins that were initially thought to be the singular vitamin B). It was first noticed in 1930 when Lucy Willis and her group of researchers realised that yeast based tonic and crude liver extracts could help prevent macrocytic anemia (a condition where the red blood cells are larger than normal leading to a low number of red blood cells in the body) in pregnant women. Other researchers came forward with similar discoveries of a compound which could prevent anemia (a low number of red blood cells in the body) but it was not until 1941 that it was isolated by Henry K. Mitchell who gave it the name folic acid – aka vitamin B9.
The main role of vitamin B9 is to assist in the formation of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), both of which contain important information which is essential for the formation of the body’s cells. B9 is also used in the production of new cells and works with vitamin B12 to produce red blood cells (hence the reason a deficiency was linked with anemia in the previously mentioned research studies). However, it also has further benefits which include:
– Assisting with serotonin production which can help improve your mood.
– Possible prevention of cervical cancer (according to How Stuff Works).
– Prevention of a number of health problems in developing fetus’s.
Men and women are advised to consume 0.2mg of vitamin B9 but this recommendation increases to 0.4mg in pregnant women. The richest source of vitamin B9 is green leafy vegetables aka foliage (hence the name folic acid). Therefore, broccoli, spinach and green beans are all good foods for getting your vitamin B9 intake. Oranges, orange juice and liver also contain good levels of this vitamin. However, as I have discussed in my previous vitamin articles, it is important that you take care when preparing green leafy vegetables. Since B9 is a water soluble vitamin it can be destroyed by high heats and also lost in the cooking water. My solution to this is to purchase a steamer. They allow you to quickly and easily prepare your greens whilst preserving the flavour and the vitamins. On top of this I find that steamed vegetables are a lot more tasty than boiled vegetables.
A vitamin B9 deficiency can be caused by either not consuming enough or because your body is not absorbing enough. There are times when your body will need extra vitamin B9 with pregnant women, cancer victims and burn victims all requiring an increased intake. There are also a number of medications that will impair your body’s ability to absorb vitamin B9 such as aspirin and oral contraceptives. On top of this excessive consumption of alcohol can inhibit your absorption of vitamin B9.
Not getting enough vitamin B9 can lead to weight loss, diarrhea, poor growth, anemia and macrocytic anemia. It has also been linked with a number of adverse affects in developing babies including neural tube defects (where the spinal chord does not develop properly) and in the very worst cases brain damage.
Getting too much vitamin B9 can also be potentially harmful to your body. It is thought that getting too much can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency. Overdosing can also interfere with anti-seizure and anti-cancer medications. On top of this it can lead to sleep problems, skin problems and stomach pain.
Some people who feel they are not getting enough vitamin B9 in their diets will turn to supplements. Pregnant women are also often advised to take vitamin B9 supplements. If you are in a situation where you are considering supplementation then my advice is to consult your doctor first. Since overdosing on vitamin B9 has a number of adverse effects it is very important that you only take supplements when necessary. Your doctor will be able to assess your need for vitamin B9 based on your current intake, the medications you are currently taking and any other factors which may be affecting your intake. Using this information they will then be able to give you a qualified opinion on whether you need vitamin B9.
I hope this article has given you a good overview of vitamin B9. It is essential for the production of new cells and the development of a healthy baby. In most cases you should be able to get enough B9 by adding an adequate amount of green leafy vegetables to your diet. If you feel this is not the case then make sure you consult your doctor before moving over to supplements. Getting too much can be as harmful as getting too little so a professional opinion is always required.