Both vitamin B12 and folic acid are essential nutrients belonging to the B-complex group of vitamins. An essential nutrient is one that your body cannot make on its own; it must be consumed in your diet or via a supplement. B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning for the most part, your body cannot store them. B12 is an exception to this, as your liver does store it in substantial amounts that could take up to five years to become depleted, according to the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin B9. In its natural form, B9 is called folate and is named after "folium," the Latin word for leaf. This is because folate is found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Other dietary sources of folate are citrus fruit, dried beans and fortified cereals. Folic acid supplements are used to boost the intake of B9 for people who do not receive adequate amounts from their foods. Folic acid aids in the production of red blood cells and DNA. A deficiency of folate can lead to anemia due to decreased red blood cell production. Symptoms such as sore tongue, loss of taste sensation, depression and tingling in the extremities may be a sign of folate deficiency.
Vitamin B12 is also known as cobalamin, a reference to the cobalt ion that is present in its structure. B12 is derived solely from animal sources such as meat, fish, dairy and milk products. Those who do not consume animal products, such as strict vegans, often eat foods fortified with B12 to ensure adequate consumption of this nutrient. B12 is needed for red blood cell production, the synthesis of DNA and the maintenance of the nervous system, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements.
A deficiency in either B12 or folic acid can cause megaloblastic anemia, a condition in which your body produces immature and abnormally large red blood cells. If you have megaloblastic anemia, it is vital that your doctor diagnose which of these two nutrients you lack. If you have a B12 deficiency but are mistakenly treated for a folic acid deficiency, your anemia symptoms may be resolved, but the neurological damage caused by B12 deficiency will not be addressed, and permanent nerve damage could result.
The recommended dietary allowance of B12 for most people 14 years of age and older is 2.4mcg, according to the ODS. If you are pregnant, you are advised to take 2.6 micrograms daily, and if you’re lactating, that amount increases to 2.8 micrograms. For folic acid, the recommended dietary allowance for most people 14 years or older is 400 micrograms. Pregnant women are advised to consume 600 micrograms daily, and lactating women should consume 500 micrograms per day. Underlying conditions may increase your need for either of these nutrients. Ask your doctor what dosage is right for you.
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