Editor’s Note: Cara has done extensive research on how nutrition relates to disability, has used the GAPS diet protocols successfully with her own family, and strives to break down healthy habits into easy-to-accomplish changes for the average busy family. She uncovered the overlooked difference between folic acid and natural folate while doing research on the MTHFR gene mutation, and is alarmed that this isn’t more widely discussed especially in prenatal consultations.
Today she shares how 20-40% of our population does not produce enough of the enzyme needed to break down the synthetic folic acid found in supplements and fortified foods like boxed breakfast cereal and how its presence in the modern diet is likely contributing to many of our modern diseases. Just about every pregnant woman is told to supplement with synthetic folic acid rather than the natural form folate. This is alarming and is impacting the health of the generation of children being born right now.
I would encourage you to read and consider this information very carefully!
As a mom of a child who has struggled with disability (see our story about GAPS and Autism here), I’ve made it a priority to be proactive when it comes to my children’s health, and I have seen their health blossom because of it. I carefully research nutrition in pregnancy, make it a priority to avoid genetically modified foods and the dirty dozen, insist that my children take cod liver oil, and even start my babies on liver as a first food.
One little nutrient slipped by me until recently, though, and I’m kicking myself now.
That nutrient was folate. Folate, vitamin B9, is a water-soluble vitamin used in just about every process in the body. It breaks down, builds, and uses proteins. It’s used in red blood cell production, DNA synthesis, and many more functions. Lack of it in pregnancy leads to neural tube defects including spina bifida and anencephaly. Lack of it in childhood and adulthood leads to growth problems, neurological problems, anemia, low white blood cell count, and more. (source)
Folate is naturally found in high amounts in leafy greens, seaweed, sunflower seeds, chicken liver, calf liver, leeks, and peppers. (source)
See, I thought I was safe because, in addition to eating food daily that contained natural folate, as listed above, I also was taking a prenatal vitamin to make sure I wasn’t missing any. But I was wrong.
But I’m taking Folic acid, so I don’t have to worry about this, right?
Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate. It is true that most of the medical community uses the terms folate and folic acid interchangeably, but they enter the metabolic cycle in different ways, and natural folate is easier for the body to access than the cheap synthetic version folic acid (source).
When people have the MTHFR gene mutation, they do not turn folic acid into folate. In addition, the folic acid plugs the receptor sites in cells with an unusable form for these people. With the unusable folic acid in the receptor sites, the body is prevented from being able to use the folate that they do consume through natural food.
What is MTHFR?
MTHFR (yes, I hear a curse word every time I read that too) is a gene mutation that is relatively common (source) and is common among people on the autistic spectrum (source). When people have this gene mutation, they do not produce the amount of the enzyme dihydrofolate reductase needed to adequately convert folic acid into the form of folate that can enter the main folate metabolic cycle.
Why is Folic acid bad?
So many people are taught that taking an excess of water-soluble vitamins isn’t a bad thing. This is because it will just be excreted in the urine if not needed. This is not the case with folic acid. If a person cannot process folic acid into usable folate, the folic acid ends up in the bloodstream where it hogs the receptor sites on cells where folate is needed (source).
When unusable folic acid is taking up the receptor sites where real folate is needed, a folate deficiency occurs and the following can happen:
- Neural tube defects
- Recurrent miscarriage
- Midline defects including tongue-tie
- Neurological problems
- Anxiety (many people don’t realize they have anxiety until starting folate and having it go way down)
- Growth problems
- Thyroid problems
- And more
In addition, this excess folic acid has been linked to:
Where is Folic acid found? How can I avoid it?
Good news! Since folic acid is synthetic and made in a lab, it is never found in natural, whole foods. The foods that are fortified are:
- processed cereals
- commercial flour
- other grain-based processed foods
- supplements including multivitamins
So if we are eating all homemade foods, only use home ground flour and oats that are not fortified, we can avoid it by also avoiding supplements that contain it.
But wait! My doctor says Folic acid is important to take
Doctors often use the terms ‘folic acid’ and ‘folate’ interchangeably. As discussed above, they are not interchangeable, just as margarine and butter are not interchangeable when studying the effect of saturated fat on heart disease.
If your doctor is open to it, I recommend starting a dialogue about the research you have been doing on how folic acid is not as easily absorbed by many people, and that you are switching to folate or discontinuing additional folic acid supplementation.
Who knows, maybe your doctor will be inspired to research and will change the standard recommendation.
In any case, it is very unlikely that your doctor will prefer you to take folic acid over folate, it is much more common that he or she will just insist that there is no difference.
What can I do?
I did these simple steps for my family upon reading about MTHFR and folate.
- Toss any fortified food in your house. Now!
- Toss any supplement containing folic acid.
- If you feel that you need to supplement with folate, choose a supplement with real folate or methyl folate (I take this one and I give my kids this one – I see lowered anxiety in myself with it, as well as increase in focus and energy, it’s too soon for me to be able to tell if it’s helping the kids yet).
- Diligently watch labels of all supplements for folic acid and avoid.
- Consider getting tested for MTHFR gene mutation so that you know how toxic folic acid really is for you.
- Learn more about supplementing with bio-available folate (you can learn more here). Some people who have been consuming folic acid need to replenish their stores.