What if everything we thought about Folic Acid was wrong?
Lately in the Naturopathic community you can barely go past a seminar, webinar or network group without hearing ‘MTHFR’ being bandied about – and no….. that is not some new acronym we use to swear at each other, MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase and it is a very important gene when it comes to our health and wellbeing.
We now know that around half the population have problems with the MTHFR gene (which causes problems with the MTHFR enzyme). There are two main mutations that we know to be the most problematic, and depending what combination of these mutations you have you could end up with a 75% reduction in the activity of the MTHFR enzyme.
So what does that mean? It can mean quite a lot of things in terms of how your body utilises certain compounds, and for the diseases it can contribute to, but for now we’ll focus just on folic acid!
The MTHFR enzyme is crucial in converting ordinary folic acid into the active form (5-methyltetrahydrofolate – we’ll call it 5-MTHF for short!). Folic acid is no use to the body unless it is able to be converted into 5-MTHF and people with a faulty MTHFR enzyme will have trouble making the conversion.
Too much unconverted folic acid means that whatever folic acid the body DOES manage to convert to 5-MTHF may have trouble getting into the cells where it’s needed as all that circulating folic acid is blocking the receptors (which is it’s entry way into the cells). So all the supplemented folic acid from prenatal vitamins or fortified foods may actually cause more harm than good in people with MTHFR gene mutations as it floats around, unconverted, unable to be utilised, and blocking the receptors from using what little 5-MTHF there is.
What’s the solution? Not supplementing is certainly not an option as we know it’s importance for prevention of neural tube defects etc, however there is the option of supplementing with a more active form such as folinic acid. (5-MTHF is not available in Australia). By using folinic acid rather than folic acid, many of the steps needed to convert to 5-MTHF are eliminated which can lead to much better outcomes for those with these particular genetic faults*
If you want to learn more about MTHFR, Dr Ben Lynch from America is a leading figure in the MTHFR research. He is making it his mission to try to get folic acid supplements and folic acid fortification of foods banned. If you love scientific information and want to know more about MTHFR – check out his website at www.mthfr.net – particularly this post on folate - http://mthfr.net/folic-acid-awareness-week-2014-want-awareness-here-you-go/2014/01/08/
Naturopath and Nutritionist
*Always speak to a qualified health practitioner if you suspect you have an MTHFR defect, the issues surrounding it are quite complex and self-prescribing may be harmful.