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Vitamin B9, which is also known as folic acid, has a large number of beneficial properties for the body. This vitamin has the feature of being very important for brain functioning, but it also plays a decisive role with regard to blood circulation and sight, and influences cell division and the development of genetic matter. Folic acid is used in a large number of therapies for anaemia, but also for many other diseases, such as commonly for spina bifida, diarrhoea, dyspepsia, gastritis, depression and arthritis.
At a physiological level, only a small amount of folic acid is produced by the human body through intestinal bacterial flora. All the rest of the body’s essential needs must be introduced through nutrition, so those at risk of deficiencies are strongly advised to eat food with high folate content. But it can often happen that due to food imbalances, various types of deficits or increased need as in the period of pregnancy, we have to use specific folic acid supplements.
Not being able to formulate the synthesis of this precious element, the human body needs a greater contribution from a nutrition point of view, bearing in mind that the human body’s reserves of folic acid are around 12-15 mg, which are stored in particular in the liver and only serve to overcome a few weeks of deficiency which is not compensated by the foods that are ingested. There are many health risks in these cases, given that it can damage the bone marrow and various highly proliferating tissues. In particular, there are two main causes that can lead to this deficiency: megaloblastic anaemia and spina bifida of the unborn child. In the first case, it involves an increase in the size of the red blood cells, which leads to considerable psychophysical fatigue. As for the second problem (which has long been dealt with through appropriate preventive therapy in the obstetric field), if a child is affected by this disorder, he or she would have a spinal cord that is not perfectly enclosed within the vertebrae and could suffer serious damage, even leading to paralysis of the lower limbs. Other risks linked to folic acid deficiency also include the cardiovascular risk, since it is widely recognised that this situation causes an increase in circulating homocysteine values, encouraging the risk of cardiovascular diseases arising. Other disorders associated with this deficiency include depression, lesions that form on the skin and mucous membranes, developmental and ossification disorders, infertility, mental delays and atrophy of the lymphatic organs.
It is thus undeniable that folic acid/vitamin B9 has really numerous beneficial properties for the human body, starting with the brain, given that this vitamin contributes to its optimal functioning and also protecting it against different pathologies that affect the nervous system.
Folic acid is a molecule that intervenes in the cellular synthesis of proteins, DNA and haemoglobin; we would do well to remember that haemoglobin is the factor that transports oxygen to body tissues thanks to iron, hence the lack of haemoglobin would thus create anaemia. Folic acid deficiencies in adults show up mainly as so-called “megaloblastic anaemia”, or lack of iron in haemoglobin and enlarged red blood cells; in these cases, the supplement of folic acid brings considerable benefits. As already mentioned, folic acid helps to reduce the levels of homocysteine amino acid in the blood, an alarm bell that signals the potential risk of a cardiovascular incident, for which the support of folic acid is fundamental in the event that these values should be high as a preventive activity.
During the gestational period, the need for vitamin B9 increases dramatically and a deficiency can cause serious damage to the foetus. For this reason, in pregnant women, a folic acid supplement is prescribed as a precautionary prophylaxis treatment, in addition to heeding the advice to maintain a balanced diet. This support becomes a fundamental weapon for correct development of the foetus, especially for the prevention of some congenital defects of the neural tube – that is, the structure that will create the nervous system and the spine in the first weeks of pregnancy – such as spina bifida (the spine develops two terminations instead of one) or anencephaly (absence of or incorrect brain development). Spina bifida involves problems of varying degrees, some of which can be corrected by surgery, while others cannot be surgically resolved, such as paralysis of the lower limbs, difficulty in controlling the intestine and bladder, and difficulties in physical and mental development. Children with anencephaly die before birth or newborn. Folic acid also appears to play a role in the prevention of other defects and congenital malformations (cleft lip, some heart defects).