In the Headlines: Is Folic Acid Poison?
by Grace McCalmon
It seems like every day there’s a new proclamation that a food you once thought was good, is now very bad. The latest of these is folic acid, which was recently called out by The Daily Beast.
This is just one in a growing number of media reports questioning the safety of the B vitamin that used to be at the top of every ob-gyn’s supplement list. So what’s the deal? Is there really cause for concern? Possibly.
WHAT THE MTHFR?!?!
No, it’s not a new abbreviation for a swear word, it stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase – an enzyme that converts folic acid into methylfolate – the form that’s used by our body.
The MTHFR gene produces the MTHFR enzyme. The problem is that some people have MTHFR gene mutations. These people have a reduced ability to make this enzyme and convert folic acid into methylfolate.
Additionally, preliminary research indicates this mutation may influence risk for conditions including occlusive vascular disease, neural tube defects, colon cancer and acute leukemia.
This could be because the MTHFR mutation can affect your body’s ability to detoxify, create and repair cells, and maintain a healthy immune system, says Dr. Jill Carnahan, MD, noting that chronic illnesses including frequent miscarriage and blood clots are also associated with MTHFR mutation.
How many people have this mutation? The jury is still out. Some research estimates that as much as half of the population may have an MTHFR gene mutation, while others say it’s closer to 10-15% of Caucasians and 25% of Hispanics.
There are many MTHFR gene mutations, but the two most troublesome are C677T and A1298C. The mutation is reported as heterozygous or homozygous.
If you are heterozygous you have one affected gene and one normal gene. According to Drs. Carnahan and Wilson, if you are heterozygous your enzyme activity can run anywhere from 30-60% efficiency compared to normal.
“In most cases the gene can still function well enough to allow the folic acid activation cycle to work” says Michael Cleary, Ph.D., head of product development at SmartyPants.
However, if you are homozygous, enzyme efficiency drops down to 10% to 20%.
This is why SmartyPants uses L-methylfolate (otherwise known as 5-methyltetrahydrofolate or 5-MTHF) in all of our supplements including our Women's Formula and Prenatal Formula. This is the active form that our bodies prefer and can easily use.
Taking L-methylfolate does not require conversion by the MTHFR enzyme. And good news: we are currently working on switching to L-methylfolate in all of our product lines by the end of 2015!
WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT FOLATE?
“Folate is needed to create every new cell in the body, which is why it’s especially important for pregnant women – babies are all new cells” says Dr. Wilson. “I recommend every woman take a prenatal with methylfolate.”
But according to Dr. Wilson you don’t need to be pregnant to benefit from taking this form of folate. Folate, or lack thereof, can affect your mood, sleep, digestion, detoxification and energy level, “everyone can benefit from taking this kind of folate.”
TEST DON’T GUESS
There are many symptoms that are associated with an MTHFR defect and they can very widely from person to person. Only a test (blood or saliva) can verify if you have a gene defect and what kind.
If you are worried that you might have the MTHFR gene mutation, speak with your medical care provider about testing options.
WHAT ELSE YOU CAN DO
If you discover that you have an MTHFR gene mutation, a great first step is switching to the methylfolate form of folate in your supplements, says Dr. Wilson.
Some experts also recommend a gluten-free diet, as many grains and cereals tend to be fortified with folic acid. Drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise and using a sauna can also help aid your detoxification pathways.
But please don’t take matters into your own hands and start supplementing with large doses of methylfolate says Dr. Wilson. There can be too much of a good thing.
All our experts and we here at SmartyPants agree that the best course of action is working with a nutrition-minded practitioner, like a nutritionist, a naturopathic doctor or a doctor trained in functional medicine, who has experience in this area. This is the best way to determine the correct supplemental and dietary support for your body.
So there you have it. No need to lose sleep over fears of poisoning yourself.
Even if you never get tested, there are simple changes you can make to ease your mind, like sticking to L-methylfolate, ditching the gluten and hydrating. All pretty good things, mutation or no mutation.
Know anyone who’s pregnant or thinking about it? Share this with them!
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Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.