What do Folate Levels Indicate?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Folate levels indicate whether someone is getting enough folic acid, an important dietary nutrient. Healthy individuals have between 2.7 and 17.0 nanograms per milliliter. If the levels are low, the patient is not getting enough folic acid. Higher levels are not usually a cause for concern but they can be associated with pernicious anemia and sometimes they mask a deficiency in vitamin B12. The doctor may request additional testing on a patient with high levels to learn more.

Leafy green vegetables contain significant amounts of folate.
Leafy green vegetables contain significant amounts of folate.

To determine folate levels, it is necessary to draw blood. A lab can perform this service and analyze the blood for folate and other compounds of interest. Doctors may request this test if they think patients have folic acid deficiencies, or for pregnant women, where folate levels are of special concern. Neural tube defects in developing fetuses are linked with low folic acid, making it important for women to keep their folic acid intake high during pregnancy.

Legumes contain folate.
Legumes contain folate.

If the levels are low, the patient may have a folate deficiency or could be at risk of developing one. The body maintains a store of this nutrient but will eventually use it up, and the patient can start to develop neurological problems like dizziness, neuropathy, and confusion. Low folate levels can increase the risk of cancer, heart problems, and depression. Patients may also feel generally unwell, with fatigue, swollen mouth and tongue, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Studies suggest that the viability of sperm can also decrease.

Curly endive, which contains folate.
Curly endive, which contains folate.

In the case of high levels, often a patient has just eaten something high in folic acid, and this skews the test results. Vegetarians naturally have higher levels in many cases because the vegetarian diet can include a lot of food sources rich in folic acid, like dark leafy green vegetables. Patients taking folate supplements can also have high levels. A doctor can interview the patient to determine if the high levels are a cause for concern. If necessary, the doctor may recommend more testing to find out more about what is happening inside the patient's body.

People who consume spinach and other folate-rich foods on a regular basis may not need to take folate supplements.
People who consume spinach and other folate-rich foods on a regular basis may not need to take folate supplements.

When the results of this testing show a low level, the doctor may recommend some dietary changes or the addition of a folate supplement. More testing to check for health conditions that can cause low folate levels in a patient may also be an option, to make sure any underlying cause beyond an imbalanced diet is identified and adequately addressed with treatment.

Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of birth defects.
Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of birth defects.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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