Is it really true that folic acid is “bad” for you because it’s synthetic and your body must convert it to the metabolically active form of folate, L-methylfolate, before your body can use it? Or was this myth started to sell more expensive methylfolate supplements and inaccurate testing methods such as the MTHFR genetic test?
Proponents of methylfolate supplements often think that more is better, both in dose and duration. For many years now we have seen negative side effects from the use of all forms of folate and folic acid supplementation, and new research finally confirms what we’ve been sharing for decades: any form of folate or folic acid should not be taken long term without specific biochemical laboratory testing and evaluation due to the very negative side effects that could arise.
It is not only important to know who would benefit from taking folate, folic or folinic acid, or methylfolate and how much is beneficial, but also a need to understand which form is best for each individual.
What Is the Difference Between Folate, Folic Acid, and Methylfolate?
Also called Vitamin B-9, folate is naturally found in many foods including green leafy vegetables such as spinach and swiss chard, to beets and avocados. It helps us utilize proteins in our bodies, form new blood cells, and create new DNA. It is important for the prevention of neural tube defects in infants as well as heart disease. It is also needed to lower homocysteine, an amino acid that can be problematic when elevated.
In 1998, folic acid fortification of flour and cereal began in an effort to minimize neural tube birth defects. Doctors also began prescribing folic acid supplements, which are a way to take concentrated amounts of folate, to their pregnant patients. Unfortunatley, overprescribing became the norm (and continues to this day), which has lead to an increase in autism and mental health disorders in children such as ADHD, OCD, and depression and anxiety to name a few. Keep reading to learn why this is happening.
The Duality of All Forms of Folate and Folic Acid Activity
Much discussion surrounding methylfolate comes from genetic testing and the MTHFR paradigm, which is neither an accurate assessment nor an appropriate guide for true methylation disorders because the MTHFR test is only 30% expressive at best, which means 70% not expressive. Another misconception people have is that MTHFR is part of the primary pathway of methylation. MTHFR is a powerful methylating enzyme in a certain part of your system, but it’s part of a backup pathway, not the primary pathway.
Methyl groups control DNA by binding to a gene and telling it whether or not to express itself. I don’t know about you, but I’m not at all comfortable banking my health on something that might only be 30% expressive.
So what happens when you feed the backup pathway and not the primary pathway? Your backup is depleted and you plunge, and this is what we see happening all the time in people that take high doses of methylfolate. In fact, if you look at the Methylation Profile test by Doctor’s Data (which is what I use in my clinic) it specifically illustrates that MTHFR is part of the secondary or backup pathway, and it certainly does not play a prominent role in mental health.
Methylation status is determined by a tug of war, as we’ve said for a long time now, a tug of war between enzymes for undermethylation versus enzymes for overmethylation. The eight to 10 enzymes over here versus the 12 enzymes over here as groups, and whoever wins that tug of war determines your methylation status, not one enzyme. You may have a SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) but it doesn’t mean that that SNP is causing you any trouble (again, 70% NOT expressive). But people think it’s a genetic test, and it’s been hyped up by many doctors, so it must be fact, and it must have some relevance.
To learn more about MTHFR and methylfolate, check out my podcast episode 3 below with Dr. Albert Mensah, Co-founder of Mensah Medical. You can also find the Eat For Life podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts!
So Why Does Methylfolate Cause So Many Problems?
What many people fail to understand is the duality of all forms of folate and folic acid activity. One may take longer or faster to work, but they all end up doing the same thing over time, which can have a devastating effect on mental and physical health.
This is because in the cytoplasm (outside the nucleus of the cell), it’s a donor of methyl, so for an undermethylated individual (that doesn’t make enough methyl groups), the thinking is that MTHFR methylfolate is the appropriate course of treatment. In actuality, that’s not correct because in the nucleus, which is the command center of the cell, 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.
This is why I don’t recommend vegan diets for undermethylated individuals.
Again, whatever form of folate or folic acid you take is going to work differently outside the nucleus of the cell where it actually donates some methyl into the system and this is one of the reasons MTHFR methylfolate has become so popular.
Yes, MTHFR Methylfolate Works Faster
The ready-made solution that so many clinicians use is “let’s just supplement with 5-methylfolate.” It certainly would be an open and shut case if biochemistry was as simple as this. But of course, things get more complicated, and this approach doesn’t usually work.
Loading up on 5-methylfolate, especially if given by itself will result in neurotransmitter changes, erring on the side of elevated glutamate, and shunted serotonin synthesis. It’s the reason so many people taking massive doses of methylfolate have such a high frequency towards adverse reactions and why so many people come to me with serious side effects from methylfolate supplementation.
Again, you need to address the entire pathway, not just one enzyme. So then the challenge with methylfolate, if given to an undermethylated person, is that the methyl piece acts and goes away and now you’re left with a demethylating agent. And as I shared previously, all forms of folate and folic acid donate some methyl outside the nucleus of the cell, but inside the nucleus, which is where our DNA lies and all our instructions are made, it steals 10 times what it donates in the cytoplasm.
Methylfolate is a nonfunctional creature. If you think about the methylation cycle, spinning millions of times in one second, do you know how often methylated folate actually works? One time. One time out of a million spins and it’s done for the day and this is why Dr. Walsh of the Walsh Research Institute calls it a suicidal nutrient. Methylfolate does not have the power most people think it does.
Folic Acid Supplements: Why Process Doesn’t Matter As Much
Most folks misunderstand the process involved in the metabolism of folic acid versus methylfolate. This is the key to understanding the difference between how folate gets into the cell, or the time it takes to do that, versus the end goal of having a physiological effect from taking the particular form of folate you have ingested.
Folic acid doesn’t have to be demethylated, but methylated folate does. Even though methylfolate gets into the system faster, it doesn’t actually begin to work faster than folic acid would because there is the extra step of demethylation before it can be utilized. It is only absorbed faster and still needs processing. Quicker absorption has to go through longer processing and can ultimately take longer to complete the utilization process.
It’s like the difference between taking a direct flight to a city and taking a connecting flight to the same city. There are more steps, more delays when you take a connecting flight that re-routes you through another city. One way takes longer. One way is more direct. Once something enters a cell there is a whole lot that goes on. Whether you take a direct route or a re-routed path makes little difference in the end. By the time it is all said and done these pieces are all moving in the same direction. The only difference we are talking about is the rate at which they are moving.
The Dangers of Methylfolate
Methylated folate is not a one size fits all folate supplement. For some, it can have adverse effects, and unless you are properly tested for your methylation status, you do not know whether it will be beneficial or detrimental to you.
What do you think happens to that methyl contained in methylated folate? That methyl is going to get absorbed into your body. I’ve already detailed what happens to an undermethylated individual taking methylfolate, but what if you give that methylfolate to a person who is overmethlyated? Well, it is like adding kerosene to put out a fire. You’ll make your methylation imbalance worse. Overmethylated patients should use folic acid that is not methylated. If you are overmethylated do not take methylated folate or any other product that is methylated.
But Folic Acid is Synthetic, and That’s Bad, Right?
Folic acid is synthetic, yes but this does not make it unhealthy. It works, and it works better than natural forms in most cases. Folic acid is used to fortify foods and is found in most dietary supplements, simply because it is more stable and bioavailable than natural folates. Historically, since the days of Carl Pfeiffer, the pioneer in orthomolecular medicine, we have traditionally used folic acid for our patients and it has shown to be extremely efficient and effective. The notion that folic acid is synthetic and is not effective is inaccurate.
Anytime you take something out of nature and take it into a lab it’s technically not natural anymore and has gone through processing and synthesizing to get it into pill form. This is the case for methylfolate, folate, folic and folinic acid.
Folinic acid is metabolically active, which means that folinic acid does not require enzymatic conversion before it can be utilized. Folinic acid can be found naturally in foods, but in order to benefit from folinic acid, it has to be prescribed in therapeutic doses for our patients. There are times when we may prefer the use of folinic acid to folic acid when we work with certain patient populations. Folinic acid has its best utility in autism, as we have seen over the years of research and clinical practice at Pfeiffer Treatment Center, now closed, the Walsh Research Institute, the Mensah Medical clinic, and here at the Eat for Life clinic.
To learn more about the dangers of folic acid use and vegan diets for breast cancer patients, check out my podcast episode 14 below with Dr. Albert Mensah, Co-founder of Mensah Medical. You can also find the Eat For Life podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts!
We have seen clinically time and again that people who are truly undermethylated do not do well on methylfolate after two to three months. In fact, to the contrary, many people report worsening of symptoms. In summary, we have three decades of research and patient outcomes (a biochemical database of over 3 million chemical assays) that support all we’ve been discussing regarding the benefits of the different forms of folate and folic acid, and their appropriate usage as well as challenges.
Please remember everyone is unique so let’s not generalize regarding folate and folic acid supplement use. There is only one you. Even if you are a twin, there is still only one epigenetic you.
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.