Scanning a food label can bring a lot of questions. A question I’ve asked myself often is, “What is folic acid?”. In honour of Folic Acid Awareness Week (which leads me to believe that I’m not the only person wondering what folic acid is!), as it is birth defect prevention month—a task folic acid is a key player in—let’s take a look at figuring out what folic acid IS, exactly!
What is Folic Acid?
Back in the day, I did a project in high school on riboflavin—a B-group vitamin I chose to write about due to its amusing name, and similar to folic acid, in that I often wondered what it was and never checked. Interestingly enough, folic acid is also a B-group vitamin: folic acid, also known as folate, is found naturally in vegetables (including beans, mushrooms, asparagus, okra, leafy vegetables, broccoli), fruits (bananas, melons and lemons), orange and tomato juice . It’s been added since the late 1990s to bakery goods, crackers, pasta, cereal, and cookies and crackers—to name a few. The addition of folate to these foods is actually regulated by law.  So why is it so important?
Low levels of folate can lead to tiredness, and be a pre-cursor to developing iron-deficiency anemia. It plays an important role in helping the body absorb nutrients properly, and as such, can be used to treat diseases and conditions that affect nutrient absorption—such as inflammatory bowel diseases like crohn’s or colitis, liver disease, kidney failure (as nutrient supplementation is often needed by those on dialysis treatments) and alcoholism (given its effects on metabolism.)  Some people may use folic acid to prevent certain diseases, including memory loss, dementia or alzheimer disease, colon and cervical cancer, for HIV/AIDS treatment, eye problems like macular degeneration, sleep problems, restless leg syndrome, and skin problems… just to name a few. It also plays an important role in treating a genetic disorder, Fragile X Syndrome. 
What effects does folic acid have on birth defects?
Folic acid is also important to promote the healthy development of an unborn baby (fetus), by preventing “neural tube defects”, or birth defects in which the spine does not form properly. Often, this leads to the development of spina bifida, in which the lower back is open and spinal cord (a bundle of nerves) is “split” in two. Spina bifida (“bifid” meaning “two”), may be undetectable until later in life—or never detected—and simply manifest in back pain—or it may cause problems throughout life, such as affecting a person’s ability to walk (either at all or without assistance), as well as with bladder and bowel control depending on the nerves impacted.
Beyond spina bifida, the most commonly known condition known to be caused by folic acid deficiency, folic acid plays an important and complex role in proper development of the body—the process to create DNA requires folic acid, and brain development is also affected by folic acid. A woman consuming enough folic acid during pregnancy does not guarantee that her child will not be born with any medical problems, however, it greatly reduces the chances that certain problems involving the brain or spine will develop.
What about men? Is folic acid important for them, too?
The short answer: YES! Folic acid helps our bodies create new cells, and for men who are planning to become fathers, it’s especially important! A good intake of folic acid can actually improve the quality of a guy’s sperm—meaning he can further help prevent certain medical problems for a future child even before the child begins developing—pretty cool. 
For men and women alike, folate can help in decreasing risk of heart disease and decreasing blood clots.  And, like many vitamins and medications, alcohol can have an impact: it’s important to consume alcohol in moderation to allow your body to absorb folate properly—thus why, as discussed, folic acid absorption can be impaired in those who are alcohol-dependent. [3,1]
Is a supplement right for me?
This is a decision that can only be made by you and a medical professional, who knows your medical history. Discuss any new supplements with your doctor, so that they can suggest a dose appropriate for your needs before you start, and make sure you stay safe—and get healthier.
What else can be done to prevent birth defects?
Beyond taking folic acid, avoiding alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes can help decrease risk of many birth defects, and ensure your baby is born healthy. Get regular exercise and eat a varied, balanced, and nutritious diet when pregnant… and all the time, to feel your best.
This week is Folic Acid Awareness Week: and now we know that folate is a small, but important, part of a healthy diet—and lifestyle.
And, always remember, many conditions make it important to wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace. Conditions like spina bifida, which may be attributed to low folic acid intake, may not always be easy to see. Individuals with spina bifida may have allergies to latex, or be on latex precautions in a medical setting to avoid developing an allergy. This is why it is important to always wear a medial ID bracelet stating all necessary medical information, just in case!