Yesterday, while perusing my fitness magazines, I couldn’t help but notice dietitians and doctors preaching about the importance of folate; they’re recommending that everyone consume more folate in both food and supplement forms.
This got me thinking. Here in the United States, we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet we experience higher rates of disease and injury, and we die sooner than people in other high-income countries.
Let’s understand how folate and folic acid impact the brain and body.
What is Folate?
Folate is a B-vitamin that is required for many biological activities. These vary from the creation of nucleic acids (DNA + RNA) and neurotransmitters including dopamine, adrenalin, noradrenaline, and serotonin to the detoxification of the master antioxidant, glutathione. It is essential for immunological health and is necessary for the generation of healthy red blood cells (which is vital in the prevention of megaloblastic anaemia) as well as platelet production.
Is Folate Good for You?
Well, this depends on your biochemistry. For those of us that are undermethylated, any form of folate, folic or folinic acid will function the same over time, regardless of whether it comes from food or supplements. This is because folate acts as a demethylating agent. The opposite is true for overmethylated individuals that require folate to reduce an overload of methyl groups.
Practitioners often tell their clients they need folate every day, but depending on your chemistry, the answer could be yes or no.
Fortified Foods and Folate
It all began during the Industrial Revolution when we decided to remove the bran from the germ of grains through milling and mass refining. Grain products could then sit on store shelves much longer without spoiling.
At the end of World War II, bakeries in America began using large amounts of chemicals, additives, bleaches, and preservatives (as many as 25 different chemicals are added to refined grain and bread products) to create an even longer shelf life. Because this process strips away all of the natural vitamins and minerals, foods must be “fortified and enriched” with vitamin and mineral forms our bodies do not recognize.
And at the top of the fortified and enriched list? Yep, you guessed it, folic acid.
What’s even worse is that in the United States and Canada, folic acid fortification became a mandatory practice in 1998.
Folate Versus Folic Acid
Folate is a general term that denotes a group of water-soluble b-vitamins (B-9), while folic acid stands for the synthetic compound used in supplements and to fortify foods. Much has been said about these two forms, with the general consensus being that it’s safe in food form and as supplemental methylfolate, but not as supplemental folic acid.
Folic acid is a manufactured molecule that is not present in nature. It’s more stable in tablet form, which is why it’s used for supplementation. Folic acid works in different ways depending on its location in the cell. The part we’re most concerned with is the cell nucleus because that’s where methyl loss and excessive stripping of methyl by all forms of folate and folic acid (even food-based) occurs.
Are There Side Effects to Folate Fortification?
An increase in conditions such as autism, depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune diseases and diabetes were noticed once fortification became mandatory (along with chemicals such as glyphosate and atrazine, potent endocrine disruptors). Studies also continue to emerge linking folic acid supplementation to illnesses such as breast cancer and colon cancer.
Researchers involved in the treatment of cancer have found that too much folic acid is directly related to increased cancer rates. Methotrexate, a drug used to treat cancer, fights cancer by inhibiting the metabolism of folic acid. When folic acid was added after treatment, cancer rates increased. This explains why undermethylated people do worse on folates and have a greater propensity to develop cancer.
What is Methylation?
Methylation is a fundamental metabolic process for our bodies to properly function. It’s essential for detoxification, immune function, DNA synthesis, energy, mood regulation, and inflammation management. Many chronic diseases are caused by impaired methylation.
In a methyl group, one carbon is attached to three hydrogens. But, since carbon can link to a total of four atoms, the methyl group has one empty site where something else can attach.
In methylation, another molecule joins the methyl group at its empty receptor site and creates a biological switch which can activate or deactivate certain bodily functions. It can be used to “turn off” DNA. While methylation is responsible for gene silencing, folate can turn on deviant genes in undermethylated individuals.
How Are Methylation and Folate Related?
As I shared in this post, there is a duality to all forms of folate and folic acid activity when it comes to the methylation cycle.
Methylation status is determined by a tug of war between enzymes for undermethylation versus enzymes for overmethylation. Whoever wins this tug of war determines your methylation status, not one enzyme. You may have a particular SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) but it doesn’t mean that that SNP is causing you any trouble.
Outside the nucleus of the cell (the cytoplasm), folate and folic acid donor some methyl, but in the nucleus, which is the command center of the cell, where all of our instructions are made and where we are trying to affect change, it steals 10 times more methyl than it donates. This can alter many cellular mechanisms including detoxification, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. This is because all forms of folic acid (including folinic, MTHFR methylfolate, and plant-based whole food sources such as spinach and avocados) steal methyl at the level of DNA.
Undermethylation and Folate
If you are undermethylated, it’s important to be very careful with folate and folic acid because they are serotonin reuptake promoters, (anti-depressants [SSRI’s] are reuptake inhibitors and undermethylated persons generally respond well to these medications). This explains why my years as a raw vegan on a high folate diet yielded devastating results for me.
Keep in mind that any form of folate, folic, or folinic acid (including methylfolate) will function the same over time, regardless of whether it comes from food or supplements. And when it comes to methylfolate, it’s not a better form, it’s simply a different form.
Nutrients give our genes their marching orders and are required for balanced methylation. SAMe is one of the most important methylating nutrients; therefore, anything that depletes SAMe reduces methylation. SAMe is depleted in undermethylated individuals and anything that interferes with ATP production (such as diet, alcohol, and stress). SAMe requires important nutrients such as B6, B12, and methionine (a precursor to SAMe) to function optimally. These are important supplements for undermethylation.
Overmethylation and Folate
Undermethylators have low amounts of important neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin), whereas overmethylators have high levels of these important neurotransmitters.
Low folate disorder is another name for overmethylation, which can manifest as ADD, OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder), depression, high anxiety, and even schizophrenia. Overmethylated individuals need folate to balance out an excess of methyl; as I shared previously, folate is a powerful demethylating agent. Overmethylation supplements include folic acid, folinic acid, and folate from foods, as well as vitamin B6. Keep in mind methylfolate is contraindicated in those with overmethylation.
Nutrition Counseling To Help You Thrive
In order to heal methylation disorders, I aim to identify and address the root biochemical causes and imbalances of your symptoms.
I offer a free 1:1 consultation to help you disconnect from the hype and the marketing jargon, and address the true source(s) of your discomfort. It’s time for your healing journey to truly begin.