A common food additive, this B-complex vitamin is essential to good health. Read on to learn why, and the specific benefits it can present to certain populations, such as fitness enthusiasts and anyone who is currently pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

What Is It?

Folate is one of the water-soluble B-complex vitamins. Folate [1] is also called vitamin B9, or sometimes folic acid. Folic acid is a form of folate that is synthesized, usually either for prescription medication or as a food additive to fortify certain foods.

What Is Its Biological Role?

Like other B-complex vitamins, folate plays a role in stabilizing cholesterol levels and promoting heart health by helping your body metabolize homocysteine, a free radical that affects cardiovascular function.

Additionally, folate in particular is required for the synthesis of DNA and for cell division. Folate helps tell your body when it needs to make new cells, and helps to create the DNA required in order to form them properly.

This also makes folate crucial for proper fetal development; studies have shown that taking higher doses of folic acid during the first trimester can help prevent certain defects such as spina bifida. Folate can also have a positive effect on mental state, and is encouraged as a holistic treatment for depression in pregnant women.

Unfortunately most medications for depression and anxiety are not considered safe while pregnant, and some B-complex vitamins, including folate, assist in neural function and the production of serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical in the brain.

How does It Help Bodybuilders and People Who Work Out?

While high intensity workouts are gaining popularity as a way to get more bang for your buck in terms of time spent in the gym, they do have a few drawbacks. One major factor that can be addressed by folate is levels of homocysteine in the body.[2]

Homocysteine is a free radical that can be particularly damaging to the cardiovascular system; normally levels of homocysteine are controlled by free radicals. Unfortunately, when you exercise frequently your body depletes its store of free radicals more quickly than normal.

In addition to this lack of free radicals, high intensity exercise in particular raises your levels of homocysteine, leaving the body at risk. Folate can help address this problem, as it specifically targets homocysteine and helps your body metabolize it into a less damaging compound, resulting in lower levels of this free radical.

What Foods Contain It?

Most animal products will have an extremely small amount of folate; though beef liver is recognized as a significant source. However, beef liver also contains high amounts of cholesterol so consumption should be moderated.

Other plentiful sources of folate include certain green vegetables such as asparagus as well as spinach and other leafy greens. Fruits, particularly oranges, can be a good source of folate whether consumed whole or as juice. Nuts, grains, beans, peas, and foods specifically fortified with folic acid are all also good sources of this vitamin.

How Much Of It Do You Need?

Recommended daily intake levels of folate vary throughout childhood; for individuals aged 14 years and older the recommended daily intake of folate is 400mcg. For females who are breastfeeding or pregnant, recommended levels increase to 500mcg and 600mcg, respectively.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Much Of It?

Consuming large amount of folate naturally found in foods is not considered harmful. When supplementing, large amounts of folic acid may hide signs of a vitamin B12 deficiency in the body by fooling clinical tests for B12 deficiency.

This isn’t harmful because of the folate itself, but because it can allow for the symptoms of B12 deficiency to go unnoticed. For this reason it can be important to moderate your folate intake and ensure you are receiving proper amounts of all B-complex vitamins.

Are There Risks Associated With Consuming Too Little Of It?

Folate deficiency can cause a condition known as megaloblastic anemia. This is characterized by a decreased amount of red blood cells. The red blood cells your body does produce with megaloblastic anemia are typically enlarged and not fully matured, resulting in a decrease in their ability to carry necessary oxygen to tissue within the body.

This is a serious condition that requires medical attention and can cause widespread symptoms include mouth sores, tongue swelling, fatigue, dizziness, and more.

While important for everyone, folate can certainly benefit specific groups of people more than others. Already commonly used as a food additive, the synthesized form known as folic acid is widely available as a supplement for this reason.

While utilizing these available supplements may be beneficial in certain situations, it can be just as helpful to try and increase your folate intake by putting a focus on maintaining a wholesome and varied diet.


[1] University of Maryland Medical Center. Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid). University of Maryland, 2015.

[2] Metab, Ann. Influence of Training Volume and Acute Physical Exercise on the Homocysteine Levels in Endurance-Trained Men: Interactions with Plasma Folate and Vitamin B12. National Library of Medicine, 2003.

[3] Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health. Folate- Consumer Fact Sheet. US Department of Health and Human Services, 2016.