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Diet and Nutrition

Focus on folate for health, not the blues

Folate -- a B complex vitamin -- is beneficial in many ways. It is essential, along with vitamins B12 and C, to help the body break down, use and create new proteins. It also helps form new red blood cells, and a deficiency in folate can result in anemia. In addition, folate helps DNA form, tissues grow, and cells work.

Recently, it has been suggested that folate can also help combat depression. However, the evidence for this link is not very strong, although researchers are continuing to investigate possible connections low folate might have on the treatment for major depression.

For example, several studies have noted a low folate concentration in the blood of patients with major depression. And a review of the research in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research suggests that supplementing antidepressant medication with folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) seems to enhance the medication's results.

Still, all of this is a far cry from taking a folic acid supplement in an attempt to battle the blues. So far, no one is recommending such self-treatment in place of getting care for depression by a qualified healthcare provider.

However, adequate levels of folate are still very important for development. Though folate deficiency is uncommon because it is available through a wide variety of foods, women who are considering becoming pregnant should make certain they are getting enough every day. Folate serves as a preventive measure against certain birth defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly. These neural tube defects develop within 18 to 30 days after conception -- often before a woman even knows she's pregnant. Of the 2,500 infants born in the United Sates each year with such a defect, about half are estimated to be linked to inadequate folic acid intake by the mother.

Starting in 1998, most grain-based foods, including enriched bread, flour, rice, macaroni, and noodles were required to be fortified with folic acid as a way to combat folate deficiency, although most breads, for example, contain just 8 percent of the recommended amount of folate per serving. Breakfast cereals are also often fortified with the vitamin.

Foods that naturally contain folate include:

Anyone 14 years old or older should get 400 micrograms of folate per day. Pregnant women should get 600 micrograms, and breastfeeding women should get 500 micrograms. Getting too much usually isn't harmful, because, like most other water-soluble vitamins, the body regularly removes it through urine.

This article originally appeared in Chow Line (01/17/08), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2008.

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Last Reviewed: Feb 26, 2008

Robert  DiSilvestro, PhD Robert DiSilvestro, PhD
Professor of Human Nutrition
College of Education and Human Ecology
The Ohio State University