Folic acid (FA), also known as vitamin B9, folacin, or pteroyl-L-glutamic acid, is one of the B vitamin-complexes. Folic acid becomes bioactive for the body when it is metabolised by the liver, which converts it into dihydrofolic acid.
The body is not able to create folate, or vitamin B9, on its own; it needs to receive folate via the diet, or folic acid via supplementation. Folate is found naturally in many foods:
- all cruciferous vegetables
- citrus fruits including oranges, lemons, grapefruits
It is rare that a serious deficiency is found in the body. However, people often choose to take this vitamin as a supplement, because the natural vitamin B9 that occurs in food can be damaged by a high temperature when food is cooked.
Many people take vitamin B9 supplements to boost the growth and condition of their hair, skin, and nails because the vitamin is required for the creation and repair of DNA, the coding of proteins, and the synthesis of new cells and tissues.
Vitamin B9 deficiency can compromise the health of the hair and skin and cause a number of conditions such as anemia, chronic diarrhea, or more serious cognitive and neurological issues and birth defects when a serious deficiency is maintained long term.
A lack of folate in the diet is known to cause poor hair growth, and it may even trigger hair loss. To ensure proper folate levels, it’s recommended that a daily dose of 200mcg of vitamin B9 be consumed by women, while men are able to tolerate a higher dose of 400mcg daily.
There is no upper limit for Vitamin B9 supplementation from food; though, the upper daily limit for folic acid supplementation is 1000mcg. It is also important that enough water is consumed along with the supplementation of this vitamin.
Folic Acid Versus Folate
The terms ‘folic acid’ and ‘folate’ are often used interchangeably. However, they’re actually two distinct terms.
Let me explain.
In its natural form, such as found in leafy vegetables, vitamin B9 is known as folate.
But when taken supplementally, this B vitamin is actually folic acid.
Aside from the difference in sources and names, there is also a difference in human metabolism.
When folate-rich foods are consumed, the majority of folate is converted to the active form of vitamin B9, levomefolic acid or 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF).
This is an efficient process, which means your body reaps the benefits more quickly and more fully.
This means it’s best to get your vitamin B9 from natural food sources. You should only rely on supplemental folic acid if necessary.
5-MTHF is an important precursor for the methylation cycle which is involved a wide range of crucial bodily functions, including:
- Immune function
- Maintaining DNA
- Energy production
- Mood balancing
- Controlling inflammation
Some people have polymorphisms (changes) in the gene for MTHFR which means they cannot metabolise folic acid to its active form 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) efficiently. For these people its safer to take folate from natural foods or take 5-MTHFR supplements.
So, what about folate for hair growth?
When speaking of folate deficiency and hair growth, it’s often recommended that you supplement with folic acid.
How Does Vitamin B9 (Folate) Deficiency Affect Hair Growth?
When folate is deficient in the body, the structure of red blood cells is affected and this structural change renders them unable to transport an adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients around the body.
This can lead to anemia, but also hair loss, because healthy blood cells are required to transport the level of oxygen and nutrients that are required to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) within the cells within the scalp (5).
ATP is a nucleoside triphosphate that carries chemical energy around the cells and plays an important part in cell growth.
When oxygen and nutrient levels are low, the cells will require another source of energy to produce ATP, which can result in an increase in the body’s production of testosterone.
In this process testosterone becomes converted to DHT (dihydrotestosterone) and this is known to cause androgen-related hair loss (6).
Low levels of B9 in the body causes important cellular processes to decline, which slows down the rate of cell division and hinders the growth of new cells. This means that new hairs are not manufactured quickly enough to replace the hair strands that have broken or fallen out.
Chronic deficiency of folate ultimately leads to the death of the hair cells.
Other important cells in the scalp are also affected by B9 deficiency, particularly oil-secreting cells and papilla cells. These play an important role in maintaining scalp health and in the production of new hairs and the regulation of the hair growth cycle, respectively (7).
A lack of folate can also cause megaloblastic anemia, which results in premature graying of the hair due to structural changes within the red blood cells.
Para-Amino Benzoic Acid (PABA) is a substance in folic acid that is sometimes taken as a supplement to reverse greying hair.
How Does This Vitamin Promote Hair Growth?
There are quite a few ways that folate/folic acid is believed to promote hair growth. Here are just a few (8):
- Vitamin B9 plays a vital role in the growth of cells and tissues of all types. Not just the hair cells, but also cells within the nails, skin, and internal organs. B9 is required for the division and regeneration of cells that are responsible for hair growth.
- Folate/Folic acid works in conjunction with other vitamins, including vitamin B12 (biotin) and vitamin C, to assist the body in the synthesis, breakdown, and metabolism of proteins. Hair is composed entirely of protein.
- Folate is required for a number of critical methylation processes in the body, including the manufacture and maintenance of RNA, DNA, and proteins. These are the building blocks of healthy hair.
- Folate is important for healthy blood flow because it’s used in the formation of red blood cells. When folate levels are adequate, the blood cells are well formed and thus able to transport the required amount of nutrient and oxygen-rich blood to the scalp. This is then used for the critical cell processes that improve the quantity and quality of hair growth.
As you can see, vitamin B9 plays a major role in many bodily functions. But are there any scientific studies to back up its benefits for hair?
Animal Studies Into Folic Acid And Hair Growth
There are limited animal studies on vitamin B9 supplementation in the promotion of hair growth. However, one study does offer hope.
Study: Folic acid therapy for alopecia in a Charolais calf (1988)
Researchers from Ontario Veterinary College in Canada conducted a study which involved folic acid therapy on a Charolais bull calf (9).
The three-week-old calf had a “history of progressive hair loss and clinical signs, including crusts and brown patches similar to those in folic acid deficiency syndrome in man.”
To test the theory that vitamin B9 deficiency was at play, the researchers treated the calf with 1 mg/kg/day of an oral folic acid supplement.
Within two weeks, the researchers noted a gradual disappearance of the crusting and brown patches. And within two months, there was a steady growth of hair.
As concluded by the researchers, “folic acid … may serve as an effective therapeutic agent in some types of alopecia triggered by a deficiency of either folic acid or the co-enzymes involved in the synthetic pathway of DNA.”
Does the lack of further studies on the topic mean that folate isn’t important for hair growth?
It would be nice, however, for more in-depth studies to be performed on the subject.
How Have People Used Folic Acid For Hair Growth?
Many people have embarked on a ‘100 Day Folic Acid Challenge’ where they have taken a daily folic acid supplement either alone, or along with a biotin (vitamin B12) or fish oil supplement and they have documented their results via video on YouTube.
A YouTube vlogger shares her experience of using folic acid to boost her hair growth within just a few weeks here. She experienced approximately an inch of growth within three weeks of taking folic acid.
At the start of this video another woman with very long hair shows how much length she created in her hair using folic acid supplements. She stopped using the folic acid supplementation when she had grown her hair to the desired length of down to her waist.
Do these anecdotal results mean much in the grand scheme of things? No. But they can offer useful insight.
Advice For Folic Acid Supplementation
Some supplements of folic acid can aggravate the stomach lining, so therefore it is usually advised to take a folic acid supplement with food.
It is advised that no more than 1 miligram (1000mcg) of folic acid is taken daily.
Often, it is advised for people experiencing hair loss to take Vitamin B12 along with folic acid supplements, or at least have their levels of vitamin B12 regularly measured.
This is usually advised as folic acid supplementation can conceal megaloblastic anemia, (a symptom of vitamin B12 deficiency) a condition in which the blood cells become disfigured, large, and dysfunctional.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause severe injury to the nervous system and folic acid cannot, in itself, resolve the neurological impairment created by B12 deficiency.
Also, taking a single B vitamin supplement for a long period of time can sometimes cause the other B vitamins to become imbalanced in the body. This can be remedied by taking a B-complex supplement along with folic acid supplements.
My favorite supplements for hair loss can be found here.
Possible Interactions With Medications
Supplements of folic acid may interact with some medications (10). It’s important that you consult with your doctor before taking folic acid if you are at present using any of the following:
- Tetracycline: This is an antibiotic. Folic acid disturbs the metabolism of tetracycline and therefore reduces the absorption of this antibiotic by the body, which lowers its effectiveness. This is true for all of the B-complex vitamin supplements.
- Phenytoin: This is an anti-seizure treatment, also known as Dilantin, which is affected by folic acid supplements. Taking folic acid along with phenytoin can increase the risk of seizures.
- Pyrimethamine: This medication, also known as Daraprim, isused as a prevention treatment of malaria and as a treatment for toxoplasmosis. Folic acid can reduce the effectiveness of this medication.
- Chemotherapy medications: For patients who are currently taking chemotherapy treatment it is very important that they consult with their oncologist before they take any supplements. Folic acid, in particular, can increase the levels of Capecitabine (also known as Xeloda) and 5-fluorouracil to quite toxic levels within the body.
Medications That Decrease The Body’s Absorption Of Folate
Some medications lower B9 levels in the body, which may be a contributing factor to hair loss. As such, an appropriate folic acid supplement may need to be taken while these medications are being used.
Always consult with your doctor initially if you are currently taking medication and plan to add folic acid supplementation.
The following are medications which can inhibit the body’s absorption of folate:
- Anti-inflammatory (Non-steroidal) pills (abbreviated to NSAIDs) including Ibuprofen and Naproxen.
- Sulfasalazine: A medication that is used to treat inflammatory disease of the bowel (IBD).
- Antacids, H2 Blockers and Proton Pump Inhibitors: These are substances, which neutralize the acidity within the stomach.
- Bile Acid Sequestrants: These are substances, which reduce cholesterol.
- Anti-seizure medications.
- Diuretic medications such as Triamterene, or Dyrenium.
- Some antibiotics such as Trimethoprim; this is an antibiotic, which is commonly prescribed to cure infection of the urinary tract; and Cycloserine.
Is Vitamin B9 Supplementation Right for You?
If you believe that vitamin B9 deficiency is the cause of your hair loss, then it makes sense that you’d want to supplement with folate and/or folic acid.
There are many benefits to supplementation, though you should speak with your doctor before you proceed.
The best way to increase your vitamin B9 levels is with natural foods that are rich in folate, such as leafy greens, nuts, and legumes. But if your diet is limited, or you’re not able to absorb folate due to a chronic condition, then folic acid supplements will do.
The addition of vitamin B9 may not make an immediate difference. However, as folate has so many benefits for hair growth, it’s important that you remain consistent in your efforts.
Do you have questions about folate/folic acid supplementation? Leave a comment below.
*This article was reviewed by Dr. Anil Simhadri.