Pregnancy Home > Folic Acid

Folic acid is a vitamin that provides many health benefits. While it is most commonly known for its benefits in pregnant women, the vitamin may also play an important role in cancer and heart disease. Folic acid is found in many "fortified" foods and is also available as supplements. Side effects that may occur with high doses of the vitamin include diarrhea, hyperactivity, and rash.

What Is Folic Acid?

Folic acid (vitamin B9) is a water-soluble vitamin. It is added to many different "fortified" foods in the United States and is also available in supplement form. Most people are aware of the importance of this vitamin for pregnant women, but folic acid may also play an important role in cancer, heart disease, and numerous other medical conditions.
 
(Click Benefits of Folic Acid for more information on what it is used for.)
 

How Does Folic Acid Work?

Many of the effects of folic acid can be attributed to the two following actions:
 
  • DNA and cellular effects -- Folic acid is important for creating new DNA (the genetic material within cells). It also helps prevent errors when DNA is copied (when cells divide) and prevents other types of DNA damage. Although these actions are especially important during pregnancy, they are also important for children and adults as well. For instance, low folic acid levels can cause anemia by interfering with the normal division and maturation of red blood cells.
     
  • Homocysteine metabolism -- Folic acid helps to break down homocysteine, an amino acid that can cause problems if it builds up to high levels. In particular, it is thought that high homocysteine levels may contribute to problems such as cardiovascular disease or blood clots.
     
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Kristi Monson, PharmD;
Last updated/reviewed:
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