Folic Acid Supplements are Useless and Harmful
Since most of my readers are women of childbearing age, I often receive questions about optimal pregnancy diet and prenatal supplements. Questions about Folic Acid come at top of the list.
Folic acid is the synthetic version of folate, vitamin B9, which is found naturally in plant-based foods. Folate helps the body make and maintain new cells.
While folic acid is often used for many health conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, liver disease, kidney dialysis, heart disease as well as to lower homocysteine, it is most known for its recommendation to be used during pregnancy to prevent spina bifida.
Spinal Bifida is a condition when the baby’s spine and back do not close during development.
Since 1998, folic acid has been added to cold cereals, flour, bread, pasta, bakery items, cookies, and crackers–by the mandate of the Federal Government. You would think that if the government gets involved and forces us to eat something involuntarily, it must be very important. However, this could not be further from the truth.
There have been numerous studies published to show that folic acid supplements are not only useless but might be harmful.
If you are taking or thinking about taking multi-vitamins or folic acid supplements or eat too many processed foods that are fortified with folic acid, this article is a must-read, because it might just help you avoid the dangers of folic acid side effects.
Folic Acid and Cardiovascular Disease
A 2010 meta-analysis looked at the use of folic acid to lower homocysteine levels and prevent coronary artery disease and events. Randomized trials conducted from January 1966 to July 2009 that showed that folic acid lowered homocysteine levels were included. (1) The researchers reported:
In conclusion, FA (folic acid) had no effect on CVD or stroke. However, analysis of within-trial results stratified by baseline homocysteine suggests potential harm in those with high homocysteine at baseline. This interaction may have important implications for recommendations of FA supplement use. In the meantime, FA supplementation should not be recommended as a means to prevent or treat CVD or stroke.
In other words, folic acid did lower homocysteine levels, but showed no benefit for reducing the incidence of cardiovascular events or death, but also identified the potential for harmful side effects. And those patients with the highest homocysteine levels were the most likely to be harmed. This is significant–in reading responses from practitioners who defend the use of supplements, a common criticism is that the cohorts in some trials are comprised of people who are healthy and that sicker people are more likely to benefit from taking the pills. In this and several other studies, this has turned out not to be true.
Folic Acid May Cause Cancer
Recent studies showed that folic acid, which was recommended for preventing cancers, ironically helps cancerous cells grow.
Animal studies show that once cells are on the path to becoming cancers, the vitamin makes things worse.
Some researchers noticed that rates of colorectal cancer went up in North America around the time that fortification began. A 2009 study found the same thing happened in Chile after fortification began there in 2000. (2)
Folic acid also has been studied in clinical trials. In the largest one, half of almost 1,000 people who had had precancerous colon polyps took a daily supplement of 1 milligram of folic acid (2.5 times the recommended 400 micrograms). Several years later, those people were more than twice as likely to have three or more new polyps, researchers reported in 2007.
You really should not take folic acid to prevent colorectal adenomas. It’s ineffective for that purpose…
said study co-author Bernard Cole of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.
A ten-year research study led by University of Southern California researchers showed that men who took daily folic acid supplements of 1 mg were three times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than men who took a placebo. (4)
A small Swedish study of 254 subjects, with a median age of 64, and a follow up of 5 years suggested that folate status is not protective against prostate cancer, however, folic acid may even result in a 3 fold increase in early prostate cancer development and risk. (5)
A research presented at the 16th International Meeting of the European Society of Gynaecological Oncology (ESGO) in Belgrade, Serbia, 11-14 October 2009 showed that women who take too much folic acid (among other unneeded supplements) may be increasing their risk of developing uterine cancer. (6)
Folic Acid & Spina Bifida Prevention
It is true that folic acid has been shown to reduce neural tube defects, which result in deformities of the spinal cord, by 50%. But the 50% reduction is in relative rather than absolute terms.
The risk of neural tube defects is 2 in 1000 for women who do not take folic acid, and the risk is reduced to 1 in 1000 for women who do take folic acid. This is, indeed a 50% reduction in relative terms, but only a 1% reduction in absolute terms.
In other words, a woman who takes folic acid during pregnancy reduces the risk of neural tube defects by 1%.
Some experts claim that the risk is actually lower at 1 in 10,000, which reduces the potential benefit even more. An additional consideration is that these numbers are for the general population, most of which are not eating optimal whole foods, plant-based diet.
The risks of taking too much folic acid, as I discussed earlier, outweigh any potential minuscule benefits it stands to offer. It is much easier to eat folate than to risk taking its synthetic form.
Other Folic Acid Risks
According to researchers at The Institute of Food and Newcastle University, the folate from food is metabolized differently than its synthetic version, folic acid.
The result is unmetabolized folic acid circulating in the bloodstream which must eventually be disposed of through the liver.
The researchers wrote that 86% of folic acid in the hepatic portal vein, which carries blood from the GI tract to the liver, was not metabolized, while almost all of the naturally occurring folate in food was properly metabolized.
This excess folic acid can cause side effects that can include compromised immune function, masking vitamin B12 deficiencies, and increased risk of some additional cancers.
In addition, according to Drugs.com, some of the other folic acid side effects include:
- loss of appetite
- abdominal distention
- bitter or unpleasant taste
- sleep disturbances
- concentration problems
- impaired judgment
- increased seizure activity in patients with epilepsy
- dyspnea with bronchospasm
- impaired gastrointestinal absorption of zinc
How to Get Your Folate
So, why take folic acid, if the risks outweigh any perceived benefits? There is no reason at all! It is easy for almost anyone consuming a well-structured plant-based diet to meet the RDA for folate.
Those who consume a well-structured plant-based diet do not experience folate deficiencies. Pregnant women can supply their babies with plenty of folate through diet without taking isolated nutrient supplements. 360° Impact Health based does not only addresses the folate issue, but also provides the best insurance for a healthy pregnancy and delivery, and a healthy baby too.
The UK is currently considering whether or not to mandate folic acid fortification at this time. In reference to this issue, lead researcher Paul Fingals stated in an interview that if fortification is necessary, it would be better to use the natural form of the vitamin rather than synthetic folic acid.
Foods that are rich in naturally occurring folate include:
- dried beans and peas
- dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, collard or turnip greens, okra, and asparagus
- citrus fruit
The daily recommended intake for folate is 400 mcg/day. It is easy to take in enough folate from food when eating a well-structured plant-based diet.
Here are some common plant foods and their folate content:
- ½ cup frozen spinach 100 mcg
- ½ cup Great North beans 90 mcg
- 4 asparagus spears 85 mcg
- ½ cup broccoli 50 mcg
- ½ cup green peas 50 mcg
So, before you ever consider reaching for a multi-vitamin or prenatal vitamins, consider eating your vitamins instead–they are of better quality, cost less and come side effects free!
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- Miller E, Juraschek S, Oastor-Barriuso R, Bazzano L, Appel L, Guallar E. “Meta-Analysis of Folic Acid Supplementation Trials on Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Risk Interaction With Baseline Homocysteine Levels.” Am J Cardiol August 2010;106(4):517-527
- Hirsch S, Sanchez H, Albala C, de la Maza MP, Barrera G, Leiva L, Bunout D. “Colon cancer in Chile before and after the start of the flour fortification program with folic acid.” Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2009 Apr;21(4):436-9. doi: 10.1097/MEG.0b013e328306ccdb.
- “Folic Acid for the Prevention of Colorectal Adenomas”
- USC Studies Folic Acid Supplements
- “Refsum H. Is folic acid the answer?” Am J Clin Nutr 2004;80:241–2.
- High Dose Folate And B Vitamin Supplements Increase Uterine Cancer Risk
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