Folate is one of the 13 vitamins essential for optimum health and is one of 8 water soluble B vitamins. The name folate is derived from the Latin word folium meaning ‘leaf’ due to green leafy vegetables being a dietary source of this vitamin.
Folate has many essential roles in the body, including nucleic acid and amino acid biosynthesis, amino acid conversions, DNA/RNA replication and methylation, as well as functioning as a cofactor in certain biological reactions.
Folate is crucial for cell growth during pregnancy. Low folate levels in pregnant woman are linked to abnormalities such as neural tube defects (NTDs). Taking folate before and during pregnancy can reduce the risk of NTDs by 50%-60%. Other studies have found that taking a multivitamin containing folate may minimize the risk of congenital heart defects, cleft lips and other abnormalities during the preconception period.
Homocysteine is an amino acid produced when proteins break down. High blood levels of homocysteine are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, arterial disease, blood clots and cognitive decline. A deficiency of Vitamin B12 or folate can cause homocysteine levels to rise as can other risk factors including low thyroid hormone levels, kidney disease and psoriasis. Supplementation of folate, especially when combined with Vitamin B12 & B6, can hep reduce homocysteine levels.
Folate is involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine, important neurotransmitters which play a key role in regulating our mood including happiness, depression and anxiety. Folate can have a stimulatory effect on serotonin receptors in the brain and improve selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) responsivity.
Folates role in DNA synthesis is vital for embryonic development and survival. Higher folate levels are associated with higher fertilization rates, oocyte quality and live births in women undergoing infertility treatment. In a study involving men with fertility issues, supplementing with folate and zinc resulted in a 74% increase in sperm count and lower frequencies of abnormal sperm.
Within the EU, an NRV or Nutritional Reference Value is given for all 13 vitamins and a selection of minerals. The daily NRV is the recommend daily amount a person should consume to avoid deficiencies. The NRV can change depending on age or during pregnancy. The NRV for folate is set at 200 mcg daily. Women who are planning on becoming pregnant should take a supplement containing 400 mcg of folate daily and continue until the 12th week of pregnancy.
Leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and rocket are great sources of important vitamins and minerals including folate. One cup (30 grams) of spinach provides 58 mcg or 29% of the Nutritional Reference Value (NRV).
The legume family consist of plants that produce a pod with seeds inside. The term Legumes is used to describe the seeds of these plants. Common edible legumes include lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans and peanuts. One cup (177 grams) of cooked kidney beans contain 131 mcg of folate which is 65% of the daily NRV. Legumes are also great sources of potassium, magnesium and iron.
Just a few eggs a week can help to boost your folate intake with one large egg providing 22 mcg of folate or 11% of the NRV. Eggs are also a great source of protein, selenium, riboflavin and vitamin B12. They are also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of eye disorders.
Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, lemons and limes are rich in folate. One large orange contains 55 mcg of folate providing 27% of the NRV. Citrus fruits are also packed with vitamin C which can help boost immunity and aid disease prevention.
There are two main forms of folate. Found naturally in our body and food, folate occurs in the form of tetrahydrofolate. This is a metabolically active or coenzyme form which does not need to undergo any processing within our body in order to be used by our body’s cells.
In contrast, folic acid, the synthetic form of folate, has no benefit to the body unless it can be converted into the active folate form. This conversion primarily occurs in the liver where an enzyme called dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) converts the synthetic dihydrofolic acid to tetrahydrofolic acid or tetrahydrofolate. The DHFR enzyme is encoded by the DHFR gene, so an individual with a mutation of this gene could be DHFR deficient which has been linked to megaloblastic anaemia.
The production of active 5-MTHF depends on the MTHFR (methyl-tetrahydrofolate reductase) enzyme. People with certain MTHFR polymorphisms are unable to process folic acid and will need to obtain folate through either diet or a supplement containing the active form methyl folate (L-5MTHF or L-5-Methyltetrahydrofolate Calcium).
There are two common gene variants called C677T and A1298C which can easily be tested for. These mutations are not rare with one third of the world’s population carrying a variant with 10% being affected. An individual could have a variant of both these genes which may result in increased incidence of health issues including raised homocysteine levels, multiple miscarriages, genetic issues with another pregnancy, mental health disorders and certain types of cancer.
Methyl folate on the other hand requires no further processing by the body as it exists in its active form. This makes methyl folate a far better alternative to folic acid even if no gene variants are present preventing an individual from processing folic acid. It is possible for folic acid levels to build up in any person who consumes to much through either supplementation or from fortification of flour and cereals. This folic acid can complete with receptor sites and block the binding of natural folate causing pseudo-MTHFR.
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