Folic acid, a member of the B vitamin family, has demonstrated benefits in a variety of areas. Research has been accepted by both conventional and integrative medical circles, and has become a part of many public health measures.

Folic acid has gained recognition for its benefits in preventing neural tube defects. Numerous studies have confirmed that certain birth defects can now be more effectively prevented by taking folic acid at dosages of 400 micrograms (mcg) or higher prior to conception [Source: MRC, RCOG]. This means that any woman of child-bearing age who could get pregnant should strongly consider taking folic acid so that the vitamin is present and available when or if conception occurs. Taking folic acid after discovering the pregnancy is not a bad idea, but it is not as effective as taking it beforehand. Women who have previously had children with neural tube defects should be taking at least 4 mg daily. At the maintenance dosage of 400 mcg daily folic acid is tolerated very well and a very cost effective public health measure.

Research has shown that folic acid has a role in the prevention of colon cancer [Source: Gatof, Giovannucci]. Patients with the inflammatory bowel condition ulcerative colitis are particularly at risk for colon cancer, and folic acid may play an even greater role of protection for this group [Source: Mouzas]. Cervical cancer prevention can also substantially benefit from folic acid supplementation [Source: Potischman]. The vitamin can also prevent esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer [Source: Larsson]. The form of folic acid found in food, folate, is widely available in many fruits and vegetables. Folic acid is also added to many grains and cereals to further prevent deficiency. It's easy to see the correlation between high fruit and vegetable intake, folic acid levels and the beneficial level of cancer protection.

The brain is another recipient of folic acid’s great benefits. Low levels of folic acid are linked to higher levels of homocysteine [Source: Holm]. High levels of homocysteine are associated with stroke, osteoporosis, blood vessel disease, cervical cancer and even macular degeneration [Source: Weinstein]. Folic acid has also been found to improve the efficacy of the antidepressant drug Prozac and has been helpful in major depression and schizophrenia [Source: Coppen, Godfrey]. Many autistic researchers are studying problems related to oxidative stress and defects in the methylation pathway. Folic acid is involved in this pathway, which plays a role in detoxification. Problems in this pathway seem to occur frequently in autistic patients [Source: Weber, Frye].

Unfortunately, many medications decrease the level of folic acid in the body. The list includes methotrexate, phenytoin, trimethoprim and birth control [Source: Frye]. Even tobacco and alcohol reduce folic acid levels. This means that women who smoke prior to trying to become pregnant may need to take 800 mcg or more of folic acid for protection against neural tube defects. It also means that even women taking birth control to protect against pregnancy should consider taking folic acid since the levels may drop.

Folic acid is necessary for the healthy development of our cells, a healthy brian and protection from cell damage that may lead to future cancers. Folic acid aids drugs used to treat depression and may even hold great promise for the growing autism epidemic that faces the world today.