Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I'm not in love with Folic Acid

Folate is the name given to a water soluble b-vitamin and is also known as B9. Folic acid refers to the oxidized synthetic compound used in dietary supplements and food fortification, whereas folate refers to the natural substance which is derived from eating folate rich food.

To make new cells, an existing cell divides in two. But first it copies its DNA so the new cells will each have a complete set of genetic instructions. Folate is a vital component in this cell replication, and understandably an important nutrient to developing a new life, as well as sustaining your own cell life!
The history of folate dates back to 1931 when chemists concluded that anaemia was caused by a dietary deficiency of the vitamin, based on their discovery of it in folate rich foods. Pharmaceutical and supplement companies moved quickly to counterfeit this vitamin. Folic acid was created in a lab in the early 1940s and today has largely replaced natural folate consumption as part of pregnancy support. In the US and also in other countries like Australia this was taken one step further in the late 1990s through mandatory food fortification. Government intervention in this areas was due to what scientists deemed as overwhelming evidence that folic acid would protect babies and as part of preconception plans  to ensure that that development of neural tube defects (NTD) in new-borns was eliminated.
The body recognises the natural form of folate which can enter the methylation cycle, a cycle of donation of methyl groups which enables us to carry on living, so pretty important. However in order to complete this cycle we need specific enzymes to break  down substances in a multi step process. This is also the case for many things we ingest; they need converting many times before the body can use them.   Folate is such an important nutrient for fertility and sustaining life! The folate you eat has to be converted via many steps to the active folate 5-MTHFR
The low activity of this enzyme in the human liver, combined with a high intake of folic acid, may result in unnatural levels of unmetabolized folic acid entering the bodies systems.
Several studies have reported the presence of Unmetabolized folic acid in the blood following the consumption of folic acid supplements or fortified foods. Human exposure to folic acid was non-existent until its chemical synthesis in 1940s.

Risks associated with excessive folic acid intake

While the incidence of NTDs in the United States been significantly reduced since folic acid fortification began,  (as up to 60% people can process folic acid) there has been concern about the safety of chronic intake of high levels of folic acid from fortified foods, beverages and dietary supplements. In recent years this has been increasingly studied in terms of how we are made and our genetic make up. Genetics is the reason why some people can smoke and drink like a trouper and live to a ripe old age and some people develop chronic diseases when they live a wholesome life and fade away in such a short time. 
It’s all in your genetics                                                         Chromosomes are organized into short segments of DNA called genes. If you imagine the chromosome as the bookshelf then your DNA as a cookbook in a shelf, and your genes are the recipes. Written in the DNA alphabet - A, T, C, and G, which are the DNA bases - the recipes tell your cells how to function and what traits to express. For example, if you have blue eyes it is because the genes you inherited from your parents are instructing your eye cells to make blue eyes!
To make new cells, an existing cell divides in two. But first it copies its DNA so the new cells will each have a complete set of genetic instructions. Cells sometimes make mistakes during the copying process – a bit like typos. These typos lead to variations in the DNA sequence at particular locations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs  (this is where the DNA bases have paired with the wrong base. One I want to look at that has been widely studied as to implications around folate and currently  has a total of  34 mutations is a more widely known SNP called MTHFR.
The MTHFR gene sits on Chromosome 1. There are two key variants we test for.
·         MTHFR C677T  so the 677 position
·         MTHFR A1298C – on the 1298 position

If you get a mixture of the Gene bases and one bases is wrong you may be ‘Heterozygous’   = 1 copy of the gene from either parent.

Or if you pair wrongly with both base pairs you are then deemed ‘Homozygous’  = 1 copy of the gene from each parent

MTHFR C677T Heterozygous = 40% loss of function
MTHFR C677T Homozygous =  70% loss of function
MTHFR A1298C Heterozygous = 20% loss of function (research on this SNP is limited)

MTHFR A1298C Homozygous  = between 50-70%
MTHFR C677T & MTHFR A1298C heterozygous = compound heterozygous = 50% loss of function in this SNP
What does having a mutated gene at chromosome 1 and position 677 or 1298 have to do with folic acid?
When ingested and as part of the break down process folic acid will bind to folate binding proteins to help carry folate around the body. It also binds to folate receptors, which are important as these are the keys that allow folate to move in and out of cells when needed. These proteins and receptors are really designed to recognise the broken down  methlyfolate and not folic acid, so in effect folic acid as it is an early part of the methyl pathways will be recognised by the receptor, will  go into the lock and jam it, as its meant to be broken down many times by the time it gets to the receptor. It will also do the same with proteins riding on the back of the proteins leaving no room for the correct passenger methyl folate in the transportation of folate round the body. This then gives your body less of a chance to complete the transfer and allow your body to gain the right type of folate.  With this happening it would make sense to assume that harm would occur as folates are needed for DNA production, balancing methylation and to support neurological development. In fact there have been studies that have shown that high metabolized folic acid have been found in the breast milk of mother, and also seen in serum blood tests.
How does this harm you?
If you have one of the polymorphisms mentioned above MTHFR your ability to break down folic acid is negated. In fact you may be one of those people as an early indication of having MTHFR if your  serum blood levels of this are very high! Unmetabolized folic acid can also do more harm.  If you aren’t getting enough folate you can’t replicate DNA, and it will further damage your ability to uptake B12 which is a vital cofactor to helping you transport Oxygen in red blood cells, so over time you can suffer from anaemia!  In terms of pregnancy and preparing, if you have this SNP you won’t be helping reduce NTD also, as your body can’t complete the transfer process. There will also be effects in the baby as folate helps to build healthy intestinal mucosa. If not properly built there may be issues with weakened ability to uptake nutrients and disease may set in or at the very least allergies, which will then be passed to future generations.
What can I do – I’m already taking a multi with folic acid and regularly eat fortified food
Do some reading around this! One of my main sources of early knowledge and continued information is you will find a load of information on how folic acid isn’t the panacea of all for preconception and pregnancy.
Dr Ben Lynch is a Naturopathic doctor who set up this site. He has tons of experience in this area and campaigns tireless about the dangers of folic acid. He has a fabulous action plan and if you want more ‘technical’ detail please read his blog on where he raises the possibility of having a folic acid awareness week.
His recommendations are:
  • Throw out all folic acid enriched foods. These are processed foods such as cereals, breads, pastas, energy bars, drinks, snacks.
  • Throw out all folic acid containing supplements.
  • Eat folate rich foods. Note that when I state folate, I mean naturally-occurring folates such as dihydrofolate, folinic acid and methylfolate.
  • Eat uncooked leafy greens (more you cook greens, the more folate gets destroyed)
  • Eat beef liver (organic, free range)
  •  Eat various beans such as lentils, pinto, garbanzo,  black, navy, kidney and lima.
  •  Opt for supplements containing active folates.  
  • Test your genetics and see where you may have blocks in your folate pathway. Knowing this is useful as you can be proactive in bypassing these blocks with various nutrients, avoiding various medications and increasing certain foods.
  • After you test your genetics via  then run your raw data through something like
  •  Most of all speak to a practitioner who can help you fight  your way through this new world 
For further information visit this link: