National Folic Acid Awareness Week 2020

As the New Year kicks off, the National Birth Defects Prevention Network is starting off 2020 with National Folic Acid Awareness Week between Jan. 5-11 — and for a lot of good reasons! It’s necessary to maintain your health, encourage fertility, and prevent some common birth defects in early pregnancy.

If you start thinking of hair follicles and foliage whenever you hear about folic acid, you’re onto something. Folic comes from the Latin word for leaf, folium, and that’s the root words like follicle and foliage grew from — but there’s more than etymology meeting the eye here. The origins of the word also provide a pretty solid tip on where you can find natural sources of folate in your diet, as well as a clue about the impact vitamin B9 has on your body.

Folate or Folic Acid?

Another part of the motivation for launching Folic Acid Awareness Week is that there’s some confusion about the difference between folate and folic acid. Chemically, they are the same in terms of their structure and impact on the body. Here’s a quick and easy breakdown in the difference between these terms:

The naturally-occurring folate in foods like fruits, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains needs to bind with protons from a molecule like hydrogen in order to become folic acid. However, about 1 in 4 people have health conditions where the body struggles to access and utilize folic acid from food, which usually occurs in a process known as methylation. In those cases, folate can build up in the body without much benefit. 

When you see “methylfolate” or “methylated folic acid” on a vitamin supplement label or an ingredient list for a fortified food, that means the folic acid is already in a form that is available for your body to access and put to use. That’s because methylfolate already has protons in its chemical structure. Typically, this is the type of folic acid found in supplements and fortified foods. 

Yet, even if there isn’t a methylation deficiency in the mix, the distinction matters. Why? Because the body absorbs them differently. On average. folate found in natural foods is about 85% bioavailable, which means you should anticipate that 15% of the folate in the food you eat won’t make it into your body via digestion. Luckily, the solution is simple if you want to increase your edible intake. Chow down on more asparagus, avocados, and dark, leafy greens!

On the other hand, folic acid has a 100% absorption rate. You’ll want to keep this in mind so you don’t overdo it. Generally, it is considered safe to take up to 999 micrograms a day, but more than that can mask the symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency. You definitely don’t want to risk that, since B12 deficiency can cause irreversible nerve damage. There are some conditions where a physician may prescribe more than the recommended averages, but unless you have specific directions from a doctor, a daily vitamin, a balanced diet, and some fortified breakfast cereal are enough to get you to your nutritional targets.

What does it do?

Many, many things! Vitamin B9 is an essential nutrient that plays a critical role in the synthesis of DNA and cell growth, which means it is involved in a lot of processes in the body. This is why it’s important for everyone to get the daily recommended 400 micrograms (mcg), either through diet or vitamin supplementation. Whether you’re getting folate, folic acid, or both, it’s a vital vitamin in more ways than one.

B9 for Beauty and Body

Folic acid keeps your hair growing and glossy, your skin glowing, and your nails strong — but this is no superficial matter. Everyone needs to be getting some of this B vitamin in their body because it’s critical for the overall health of your circulatory system — your heart, arteries, veins, and blood. Folate and folic acid are necessary to create healthy new red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all of your cells, organs, and tissues.

If you don’t have enough folate or folic acid coming in, you may not be making enough blood cells to keep your body healthy. That’s when anemia can develop, and  leave you feeling weak, looking pale, and too tired to carry out your normal routine. Folate-deficiency anemia has some tell-tale signs, including headache, sore mouth or tongue, pale complexion, and fatigue. It is most common during pregnancy, but can also be brought on by alcoholism and certain medications which are prescribed to treat anxiety, arthritis, and epilepsy.

Birth Defect Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all women of reproductive age take in at least 400 mcg of folic acid each day. Some prenatal vitamins may have as much as 600 mcg per dose to guard against anemia. This is partially because mom’s blood supply increases during pregnancy, and that takes a lot out of you!  Deficiency can lead to other complications, too. In fact, one of the most important reasons to bump up the B9 is that studies have shown it reduces the risk of several birth defects of the brain and spine when taken before and during pregnancy. Specifically, it prevents neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

Neural tube formation begins early in the first trimester, often before pregnancy is confirmed. Pregnancy is still in the embryonic stage when it starts to grow, so it would be too small to spot any trouble with a sonogram. Unfortunately, malformations of the neural tube are the most common major congenital birth defects, affecting 3,000 births in the United States annually. They also present a serious risk of dangerous complications or miscarriage. Thankfully, since mandatory folic acid fortification of foods began in 1998, the rates of these types of birth defects have fallen by 28%. Meeting your daily folic acid intake goal reduces the risk by more than 50% to 70%, according to the CDC.

Fertile Follicles

Most people think of hair when they hear the word “follicle,” but ovaries have hundreds of thousands of them too. Instead of growing hairs, they hold immature eggs until it’s their turn to run the menstrual gamut. Having a good amount of folic acid in your system before ovulation helps those follicles get to work on maturing the ova they contain, and will encourage a more regular cycle that can result in successful conception.

Once fertilization occurs, your little zygote will embark on an exponential amount of cell division and growth to start building your baby’s body. Folate and folic acid make sure your body has the reserves to facilitate that during what can be a pretty tenuous time for an embryo. The majority of miscarriages occur due to cell growth failures that occur in the first few days after conception, often before pregnancy is ever known or suspected. This is why parental planning often involves popping a daily prenatal vitamin months before the deed is done.

Know your folic acid facts? Take the quiz to find out!

Awareness Raising Media

If you’d like to help raise awareness of National Folic Acid Awareness week in your community, there are a variety of easy-to-share materials available. We’ve compiled a collection that includes educational videos in multiple languages that you can share on social media, as well as PDF posters and fact sheets in several languages you can either promote online or print and post in your community center, office, or school.


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