Folic acid is frequently prescribed to people suffering from anemia, and to help prevent birth defects.
"It is a B vitamin and essential," said pharmacist Dr. Shanon Gower. "A folic acid deficiency can cause anemia. It is important for women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, because it can prevent spina bifida. It helps strengthen bones and just plays a big role in your overall health."
Spina bifida is a congenital defect in which the neural tube does not close as it develops. Its incidence has been reduced in the U.S. with folic acid supplements.
Humans use folate to synthesize and repair DNA, which can aid the growth and division of cells -- especially important during pregnancy and infancy. Folic acid also helps the body produce healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen.
The body requires very little folic acid intake, and western diets usually include a sufficient amount. However, deficiencies are reported more often globally.
Foods rich in folate include leafy vegetables, legumes, liver, egg yolks, avocados, and sunflower seeds. Many grains and cereals are also fortified with folic acid.
Intake is not measured in milligrams, but micrograms. Adults need about 400 micrograms of folate per day. Pregnant women are often prescribed extra folic acid. The elderly may also be prescribed doses if they exhibit symptoms of a deficiency.
"It can be taken as a supplement," Gower said. "Many over-the-counter multivitamins contain folic acid. Being a B vitamin, it can affect your energy level. Tiredness or a loss of appetite -- anemia -- may be symptoms of a B deficiency."
When prescribed folic acid, a patient may notice the dosages measure in milligrams. However, there danger of overconsumption is remote.
"It is possible to have an overabundance of fat-soluble vitamins," Gower said. "But B vitamins like folic acid are water soluble and removed by the body very quickly. Too much folic acid would have much the same effects as too much of any B vitamin -- numbness in the tongue, tingling in the hands and feet."