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Folic Acid & Mental Health

Numerous studies have implicated that low intakes of fish, omega 3 fatty acids, fruit and vegetables are risk factors for depression, however further  research is needed to provide definitive answers.
Scientific research suggests a link between dietary habits and the risk of developing depression.
In this article, I will focus on the nutrient folic acid for mental wellbeing and next week, the benefits of fish and omega 3 will be explored in more detail.

What is Folic Acid? 

  • Folic acid is a nutrient which is part of the family of B vitamins.
  • Folic acid is crucial for proper brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health.
  • This nutrient is essential for normal functioning of DNA genetic material, repair of damaged DNA genes and it is of particular importance during periods when cells divide and tissue is rapidly growing i.e. infancy, adolescence and pregnancy.
  • Folic acid also works in synergy with vitamin B12, to help make red blood cells and helps iron to function correctly in the body.
  • Folic acid deficiency can be caused by an unhealthy or unbalanced diet and certain medical conditions can also lead to deficiency including coeliac disease, crohns disease, colitis or even alcoholism. A number of medications can also lead to deficiency e.g. some chemotherapy, arthritis, anti seizure and tetracycline antibiotics.

Symptoms of folic acid deficiency include:

irritability, forgetfulness, mental sluggishness, loss of appetite,
shortness of breath, gum infections and tongue inflammation.

Links with Depression

The evidence with regard to folic acid aiding depression is mixed.  Some studies have shown that 15-38% of people with depression have low folate levels and those with the lowest levels tend to be most depressed.

One high quality study found that taking 500microgrammes of folic acid daily helped the antidepressant medication Prozac to work better in women, but the benefit was not found for men. Another study found conflicting results using B12 and folic acid supplements with older depressed people.

Food Sources of Folic Acid

Deficiencies of dietary folic acid and diets high in processed foods have been linked with the prevalence of depression. If you suffer from mood disorders, aim to consume a health well balanced diet and try to include several of the foods mentioned below on a daily basis.

Try to incorporate some of the foods listed below, try to eat at least 2 pieces of fruit, 2 different vegetables and some type of salad vegetable every day.

Excellent Sources 
Beans, lentils, asparagus, spinach, lettuce, chickpeas, avocado, brussel sprouts, beetroot, orange juice
Other Good Sources
Eggs, oranges, parsnips, parsley
Smaller Amounts Contained in
Strawberries, raspberries, kiwi fruit and nuts

Folic Acid Supplementation

There is a limited amount of research available which suggests that taking a folic acid supplement in addition to anti-depressant medication may be beneficial however further studies are required in this area.
You are probably aware that all women of child bearing age are recommended to take a daily folic acid supplement (containing 400 microgrammes), in order to prevent spina-bifida and other neural tube defects for both planned and unplanned pregnancies.
If you regularly take folic acid supplements, especially if exceeding 800microgrammes, then you need to monitor your B12 levels as folic acid supplements can sometimes mask B12 deficiency.  A simple blood test with your GP can keep a check on the levels in addition to folic acid levels.

Written by Ellen Roche   Consultant Dietitian & Clinical Nutritionist


For Cycle Against Suicide Social Media Pages
The role of nutrition care for mental health conditions (2), Dietitians of Canada, Dec 2012.
The role of nutrition in mental health: Depression Solomen et al 2010

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