Folic acid is the general requirement for ‘trying to conceive’ couples and pregnant ladies, recommended as a means to support embryo development and gene expression. However, growing research indicates that it’s actually the natural form of vitamin B9 (folate) which is found in food sources such as spinach, lemons, avocados and lentils, that the body needs. In fact, many women may not be able to absorb folic acid leaving them prone to miscarriage, blood clots, endometriosis, heart disease and genetic mutation.
But what’s the difference?
Folic Acid is a synthetic form of B9 most common in supplements and fortified foods. Developed in 1943, it started being added to foods in 1998 (US only, currently), including gluten based products, vitamin waters and many more.
The body cannot metabolise folic acid readily. Folic acid first needs to undergo reduction and methylation in the liver before getting converted into a folic acid derivative known as tetrahydrofolate (THF). This process requires a sufficient amount of the key enzyme dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR), and because DHFR maintains very little activity in the liver where metabolism occurs, the body can only convert a small amount of THF. This results in varying and potentially harmful levels of unmetabolised folic acid circulating your system with nowhere to go.
**HOWEVER** About 40% to 60% of the population has genetic mutations (MTHFR Gene Expression) that impairs the conversion of supplemental folic acid to its active form, l-methylfolate.
What is MTHFR?
This is a gene mutation found in both men and women, that affects a significant amount of the global population.
MTHFR is an enzyme that adds a methyl group to folic acid to make it usable by the body. The MTHFR gene produces this enzyme that is necessary for properly using vitamin B9. This enzyme is also important for converting homocysteine into methionine, which the body needs for proper metabolism and muscle growth and which is needed for glutathione creation . The process of methylation also involves the enzyme from the MTHFR gene, so those with a mutation may have trouble effectively eliminating toxins from the body.
People with a MTHFR gene mutation have a highly reduced ability to convert folic acid or even folate into a usable form. Leading expert in this area, Dr Lynch, goes on further to say that folic acid blocks the folate receptors, preventing us from absorbing natural folate (B9) from food sources.
Folate on the other hand is the more bioavailable and full-spectrum form of B9. Folate is the most natural form of vitamin B9, naturally occurring in citrus fruits, beans, leafy greens, and other foods. Folate is the ideal form of B9 supplementation because unlike synthetic folic acid, folate does not need to undergo reduction and methylation in the liver before the body can use it.
Folate is metabolized in the small intestine where it converts to tetrahydrofolate and is then ready to enter the folate metabolic cycle. Because of this, folate is also a good option for those with MTHFR.
Folate has not been widely recognized as a supplement compared to folic acid largely because it has a shorter shelf life. When folate is isolated from its food source, it loses nutritional value quickly, which is why manufacturers oxidate it, creating folic acid.
However, supplement manufacturing has come a long way in the past five years, and folate supplements are becoming more shelf stable and easier to come by.