When most think about the B vitamin, folic acid, they think pregnancy. That’s because when a women takes folic acid before and during pregnancy, it helps reduce birth defects. This is the reason that folic acid is found in prenatal vitamins. People have a lot of questions about folic acid so let me take a moment to review 3 facts about this vitamin that most people have never heard of.
Is Natural Folic Acid Better?
Many people assume that natural vitamins are always better than synthetic vitamins. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't. It turns out that folic acid is really the synthetic form of the vitamin. The natural form is called folate. If you check the label of your multivitamin you will likely see that it contains folic acid and not folate. This is because folic acid is about twice as well absorbed as folate. This doesn't mean that folic acid is better. Companies likely add folic acid to supplements because it helps reduce birth defects. Combating folate deficiency is one of the main reasons why folic acid is added to various foods also. Some birth control pills as well as other medications might also lower folate levels so this is another reason it’s added.
Folic Acid and Heart Disease
Does folic acid lower your risk of heart disease? Some advertisements make you think so. The reason is that folic acid is one of the vitamins that can lower homocysteine, a chemical that makes blood sticky. Sticky blood might clump together in blood vessels and cause a heart attack or a stroke. The other two vitamins that lower homocysteine are vitamin B 6 and vitamin B12. As such, all 3 vitamins frequently are found in “heart healthy” supplements. The question however is, if a supplement lowers homocysteine levels, does it also lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke? This is actually a difficult question to answer. Some research finds that if you already have heart disease and had a heart attack, folic acid supplements don’t seem to help
Homocysteine seems to be a marker of heart disease rather than a cause of heart disease.
There is no conclusive proof that folic acid supplements reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke, even though they lower homocysteine levels.
Folic Acid and Cancer
The idea that folic acid might prevent cancer is also tricky. Several studies have found that folic acid (both from food and supplements) might reduce colon cancer risk.
Still other research finds folic acid doesn't help colon cancer.
Even more strange is a 10 year long study conducted by the Journal of National Cancer Institute. This study found that 1 mg of folic acid taken daily increased prostate cancer by 300%!
Still, another study found that adding folic acid to the food supply appears to increase colon risk.
How might folic acid increase cancer? Remember, we absorb folic acid better than the natural vitamin (folate). A higher uptake may change the way cancer cells divide. This is my opinion. Take it for what it is worth.
Remember we are talking about folic acid. No study shows that folate (the natural form of the vitamin) increases cancer. In fact many studies find lower cancer rates in people who eat folate-containing foods.
Do You Need Folic Acid Supplements?
As you can see from this little review, folic acid supplements can be tricky. If you’re thinking about whether a folic acid supplement is right for you, here are some things to think about.
- Get your folic acid levels checked. A simple blood test will tell you what it is.
- Eat foods that have folate. Green leafy vegetables, fruits and beans are some good sources.
- If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, folic acid is a good move and prenatal vitamins will help you.
- If you have heart disease, talk to your doctor. Cardiologists stay up to date with folic acid research. People with heart disease who take blood thinner medications should also talk to their doctor before eating green leafy vegetables. These foods also have vitamin K which might interact with blood thinner medications. This is serious business!
- Older adults who take folic acid supplements should make sure their vitamin B 12 levels are good. Sometimes, we lose the ability to absorb vitamin B 12. Folic acid supplements might mask signs of a vitamin B 12 deficiency. This can make you tired as well as increase homocysteine levels.
- If you have a history of cancer, specifically prostate cancer or colon cancer, ask your doctor about folic acid supplements first. Your doctor knows best whether folic acid is right for you.
Remember, while folic acid does have its uses, for most healthy people, the way to go is eating folate containing foods and then supplement with folic acid if its necessary.
What do you think?