What is folate?
Folate, also called vitamin B9 or folic acid, is a type of B vitamin. Folic acid is the synthetic version of vitamin B9, which is what's found in fortified foods and supplements. Folate is needed for a healthy liver, skin, hair, and eyes.
What is its function?
Folate plays a key role in forming red blood cells — which carry oxygen around your body. It also plays an important role in making and repairing your DNA.
For pregnant women, folate is essential for the development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord during pregnancy. If you’re deficient, especially in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it might lead to a serious birth defect called a neural tube defect (NTD) — like spina bifida and anencephaly.
What can cause my levels to change?
Your body can’t build up a store of folate so you can become deficient in a matter of weeks. So it’s important to continuously get enough from your diet or from supplements.
You might also be at an increased risk of vitamin B9 deficiency if you:
- are pregnant
- drink excessive amounts of alcohol
- take certain medications — like anticonvulsants and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)
- have a gastrointestinal disorder — like coeliac or Crohn’s disease
- have a genetic disorder that stops your body from converting vitamin B9 to a form your body can use
What are the most common symptoms?
If you don't get enough folate, it can lead to anaemia — meaning your body can't transport around enough oxygen. Low levels are also linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Signs you might be deficient in folate include:
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- difficulty concentrating
What factors within my control could influence it?
You can increase your folate levels by eating foods high in folate like:
- leafy, green vegetables — for example, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts
- beans, peas, and lentils
You can also get foods fortified with folic acid, like some breakfast cereals.
If you're not getting enough folate from your diet, a folic acid supplement might be an option. It’s really important to make sure your vitamin B12 levels are normal when starting a folic acid supplement. This is because folic acid supplements can mask the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency. If vitamin B12 deficiency goes untreated, it can lead to irreversible damage to your nervous system.