Dark, leafy greens are in focus.
Dark, leafy greens are full of folic acid, a B vitamin that may just be an elixir of life. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Most people associate folic acid (also called folate or vitamin B9) with preventing birth defects.

And it’s true: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, taking folic acid supplements reduces the risk of neural tube defects, including spina bifida, by 70%.

But folic acid isn’t only for during pregnancy, according to Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN, a Spectrum Health community nutrition educator. It creates healthy red blood cells, regulates hormones and creates healthy DNA.

Most adults should get between 400 and 600 micrograms of folate per day, Corwin said. Eating a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy products will get you headed in the right direction.

Here’s what you should know about folic acid:

1. It helps with aging.

Folic acid is used to treat memory loss, (including Alzheimer’s disease), hearing loss, macular degeneration and osteoporosis.

2. It fights some anemia.

Certain types of anemia are linked to low folate. Symptoms include fatigue, paleness, decreased appetite, irritability, diarrhea and a smooth tongue.

3. It may be linked to cancer.

The American Cancer Society says researchers are investigating whether taking a multivitamin with folate can lower colorectal cancer risk. Studies have found mixed results, and more research is needed.

4. It’s linked to heart disease and stroke.

According to the American Heart Association, folic acid and other B vitamins help break down homocysteine, an amino acid that increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. The AHA recommends a healthy, varied diet to get the nutrients you need.

5. It may help depression.

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that low folate may be linked to major depression disorder, and it could impact the effectiveness of antidepressants.

6. It’s good for what ails you.

Folic acid may help with stress-related issues including anxiety, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and restless leg syndrome. (Experts say some gray hair is caused by folate deficiency. In some cases, increasing folic acid brings hair back to its natural color.)

7. It’s linked to other problems.

Peptic ulcers, mouth ulcers, diarrhea, poor growth and a swollen tongue (glossitis) can all be caused by low levels of folate. Some people apply folic acid directly to their gums to treat gum infections.

8. Digestive issues and alcohol overuse = low folate.

Some people have low folate because they can’t absorb it into their systems. This issue is common for those with celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, and those who drink too much alcohol.

9. Your mother was right about liver and spinach.

Eating healthy makes a difference. Folate is naturally found in liver, leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli and lettuce), okra, asparagus, fruits (bananas, melons, lemons), beans, yeast, mushrooms, meat, orange juice and tomato juice.

10. Folic acid is added to many foods.

It’s the law. Since 1998, the Food and Drug Administration has required that grain-based foods, cereals and dietary supplements be enriched with folate. As a result, you’ll find it in many cereals, flour, pasta, bakery items including cookies and crackers. Check nutrition labels for details.