Folic Acid: Friend or Foe?0
It’s a term you’ve probably seen on the back of a food packet or supplement jar, but what is Folic Acid? Quite simply it’s a synthetic B vitamin created to mimic the naturally occurring Folate. Folate occurs naturally in green leafy vegetables and legumes and it is hugely important for a number of processes in the human body, but it’s most famous for its use in the development of healthy babies. Inadequate levels of folate can lead to big problems for unborn children such as malformation of the neural tube which is implicated in spina bifida and incomplete formation of the brain (anencephaly).
The neural tube is the embryonic tissue that becomes the brain and spinal cord of the baby as it grows in the womb.
Because of the devastating effects of this nutritional deficiency, the Australian government followed the lead of other western countries and passed mandatory folic acid fortification laws in September 2009(3), requiring all conventionally farmed wheat flour to be fortified by synthetic folic acid.
This requirement was based on data from other countries showing a reduction in neural tube defects. In Canada, the incidence is recorded as occurring 1.58 times per 1000 births prior to fortification and reducing to 0.86 times per 1000 births after folic acid fortification was introduced, giving a 46% reduction in incidence of neural tube defects (2).
What we can see is that neural tube defects are considerably reduced by folic acid, but what those figures don’t consider, is what effect does folic acid have on the general population? Before we consider that question, it is important to understand what folate actually does in the human body. Folate is needed for a range of functions including methylation, DNA formation, activating B12 as well as the synthesis of mood hormones and neurotransmitters such as Serotonin, Dopamine and Norepinephrine.
When we consume naturally occurring folate from food, our bodies convert it to an active form for use. The first active form created is Folinic acid and it is essential for DNA and RNA repair and formation. The next step of activation turns Folinic acid into Methyl Folate by the addition of a methyl group.
This all important methyl group is necessary to trigger the methylation cycle in your body. In simplistic terms, the methylation cycle is responsible for using methyl groups as switches to turn on and off a range of essential functions in the body, then recycling those switches for use again. Without methylation and it’s switches; virus’s can’t be switched off, DNA can’t be repaired, toxins can’t be excreted, vitamins can’t be used, stress and inflammation can’t be reduced and baby’s aren’t formed correctly in early pregnancy. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t be here without it functioning to some extent in your parents and in yourself.
Unfortunately not every person has the right genes to activate Folate and these people have even more difficulty using the synthetic Folic acid. It is estimated that 35% of Australians have at least one copy of a faulty gene and another 15% have two copies of that gene that makes it difficult make the active form, Methyl Folate (1). This gene is responsible for the enzyme called methylene-tetrahydrofolate reductase and is known as MTHFR for short. The MTHFR mutation that reduces folate metabolism is named C677T. If you suspect that you have this gene mutation, a simple blood test ordered via your GP will diagnose it.
For people with the MTHFR C677T gene, synthetic Folic acid binds to the folate receptors without activating them, which results in even less useable folate being activated. Folic acid also creates a burden of unmetabolised folic acid (UMFA) to excrete and for people with an already compromised ability to excrete toxins, this can be an extra challenge.
For the 50% of the population who have healthy genes, Folic acid requires a lot of other B vitamins and nutrients to make it active and useable. While for the other 50% who have a MTHFR C677T defect, Folic acid consumption leads to significant health problems including (but not limited to) a higher incidence of stroke, prostate cancer, embolism, parkinsons and alzheimers. In pregnant women with MTHFR C677T, the audience who is supposed to benefit from Folic acid fortification, a higher rate of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, children born with autism, down syndrome, congenital heart defects as well as midline defects including tongue tie, lip tie and umbilical hernia are found(4). Emerging research from all over the world is suggesting that population wide supplementation is not the one size fits all solution that it was intended to be.
The good news? Even if you don’t know your genetics, it’s easy to avoid exposure to synthetic folic acid by avoiding supplements that contain folic acid or the term folate and only selecting supplements containing calcium folinate (folinic acid) or 5-Lmethyltetrahydrofolate (methyl folate). As with any supplementation, it is always best to check with your practitioner trained in nutritional medicine before self prescribing.
The best news I’ve saved for last. In Australia, organic wheat flour isn’t subject to the same fortification laws. So, if you would like to include wheat in your diet and it agrees with your body, there is a safe option for people with MTHFR C677T. It’s just another reason why you can’t beat eating certified organic foods.
1. Lorenzo D. Botto and Quanhe Yang. (2000)“5,10-Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase Gene Variants and Congenital Anomalies: A HuGE Review”. American Journal of Epidemiology. Accessed 24/1/2016
2. Philippe De Wals, Ph.D., Fassiatou Tairou, M.Sc., Margot I. Van Allen et al. (2007)“Reduction in Neural-Tube Defects after Folic Acid Fortification in Canada”. New England Journal of Medicine. Accessed 24/1/2016
3. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. (2009) “Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification guide 2009” Accessed 24/1/2016
4. Ben Lynch, Dr. (2011) “MTHFR Mutations and the Conditions They Cause” Accessed 24/1/2016