The minute you begin trying to conceive or you find out you are pregnant people start asking "are you taking folic acid?" Folic acid can help with preventing neural tube defects in developing fetuses, which is why they now shove it into our breads, pastas, cereals, and grains and put it in virtually every prenatal vitamin at high doses. While I completely agree that prevention of neural tube defects is very important, the harm that folic acid can cause isn't worth the risk, especially when there is a natural and simple (and much better) option that can also prevent neural tube defects and provide additional health benefits simultaneously.
Folic acid is a synthetic product- it doesn't exist anywhere in nature and when we ingest it our body has to do a lot of processing in order to get into a form that it can use at all. However, while being processed folic acid blocks up the methylation cycle, which is responsible for a large variety of processes, including energy production, gut integrity, histamine production, antioxidant production, mood balancing, and turning genes on and off, which can affect cancer risk greatly (both in overactive or underactive cycles). For woman (and fetuses) with a gene defect known as MTHFR it can be even more detrimental to take folic acid during pregnancy, as taking it instead of the active natural forms of folate (5-MTHF, folinic acid) can cause increased risk of miscarriages. And here's the scary part of all of this... about 40% of the general population has some form of an MTHFR defect.
More and more people are realizing the issues with synthetic folic acid and some countries are starting to make it illegal to fortify foods with it. They are realizing that disorders like autism are greatly related to the methylation cycle that and since the introduction of the folic acid fortification in foods the rate has skyrocked at a much faster pace. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, though personally I think these other countries, like England and Ireland, have the right idea.
So, how do we avoid folic acid? Honestly, completely avoiding it is quite hard for most people. Eating a 100% organic diet will do it. Giving up ever eating out will help. Completely avoiding boxed foods will do you quite well, although when buying rice the other day I noticed a number of the bags had labels that said "ingredients: rice, folic acid". Generally these are not steps that most people are willing to take, but the more you can eat whole foods the less you are likely to have it in your diet. Checking you supplements is also important and thankfully more and more brands are taking it out of their formulations and replacing it with folinic acid or 5-MTHF, or often a combination of the two. What it comes down to is if you can consciously choose foods that don't have folic acid fortification and to just be ok with occasionally getting some in your food when dining out or at a party then you will still be in a very good place. We are human and life happens.
Eating foods naturally high in folate is also a great way to support your methylation cycle and they also just help with overall health. The top 10 highest foods in folate (in order, per serving) are: asparagus, mustard greens, lentils, edamame, collard greens, broccoli, black beans, chick peas, adzuki beans, and cauliflower. Making sure you are taking a prenatal without folic acid (but with natural folate) is also very important. It's important if your vitamin simply says "folate" that you call the company and ask what form this is in, as it could be either folic acid, folinic acid, or 5-MTHF (although generally if it has the latter 2 they are promoting that about 10 times on the bottle). I generally recommend one of the Seeking Health prenatals (click here to go to their store), which are formulated by an ND who specializes in methylation and genetics.
Even if you don't have a genetic issue like MTHFR there is no reason why you should be taking a synthetic vitamin that your body can't fully utilize and that has potential issues in your methylation pathways, especially when nature has the perfect solution- eat plants! If you are eating even one serving a day of the high-folate foods you are getting nearly all the required folate in one serving (more than 100% RDA for the first two foods listed!). You don't have to live on salads to get enough folate from your diet alone and, although those with methylation issues can benefit from additional folate supplementation, using food to meet your requirements is easy and delicious.
Hi, I'm Dr Sarah. I'm a mother of two and a big fan of food-based treatments, but I also understand that sometimes high-quality supplements can also be a huge life-changer, especially during times of change, like pregnancy. I strongly urge you to start reading labels and looking for folic acid, especially if you are pregnant or are considering becoming pregnant, and to begin adding high-folate foods into your diet. It's a simple step that you can take to decrease your chances of numerous chronic conditions and to give your children the best chance at a healthy life. If you are interested in exclusive information related to your health and that of those you love just click here to join my mailing list!
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