Folate, also referred to as folic acid, is one of many B vitamins needed by our bodies. Folate is used to make red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and for normal cell growth. Folic acid also plays an important role in the development of a healthy fetus. Folate cannot be made by the body and must be ingested through foods like citrus fruits, dark greens, leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, cereals enriched with B vitamins, kidney, and liver.
A healthcare professional may order a folic acid test to:
- Check for the cause of anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Check for malnutrition or absorption problems (i.e., celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease)
- Monitor treatment for folate deficiency
- Assure a pregnant woman has enough folic acid to prevent birth defects
Without enough folic acid in your body, a developing baby’s neural tube may not close correctly, and they could develop a neural tube defect. These include:
- Spina bifida: incomplete development of the spinal cord or vertebrae
- Anencephaly: incomplete development of major parts of the brain
These defects can occur within the first 3-4 weeks of pregnancy. So it’s important for expecting mothers to have enough folate (400 micrograms / day) during those early stages when the baby’s brain and spinal cord are developing.
A low folic acid level may mean you have a problem with your diet, alcohol dependence, or an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa. It may also mean you have a problem absorbing or using folic acid, such as: vitamin C deficiency, liver disease, celiac disease, or Crohn’s disease. Signs and symptom of folate deficiency include:
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
A high level of folic acid in the blood may indicate that you eat a diet rich in folic acid or are taking folate supplements. Folate is a water-soluble vitamin, and as such the body can easily remove excess amounts through urine. Therefore, consuming more folic acid than the body needs does not cause problems. A high folic acid level can also mean vitamin B12 deficiency. Our bodies need vitamin B12 to use folic acid; if there isn’t enough vitamin B12 then a buildup of folate can occur. That being said, a folic acid test isn’t a reliable way to test for vitamin B12 deficiency.
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