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Which Folic Acid Supplement is Right for You?

Updated on May 13, 2014

You probably know about the benefits of folic acid for pregnancy, but did you know that this B vitamin exists in different forms?

The form you choose will make a big difference: some forms aren't very efficient for your body to use, while others are quickly absorbed and go right to work.

The common form of this nutrient is found in most nutritional supplements and fortified foods.

Folic acid is synthetic and your body doesn't break it down efficiently. This means that a lot of it either leaves your body through urine or floats around in your bloodstream.

But folic acid reduces the risk of certain birth defects known as neural tube defects. Taking a substantial amount of folic acid before and during pregnancy may also decrease the risk of autism and developmental delays.

There is a downside to getting high amounts of the synthetic form of folic acid in supplements and fortified foods: high blood levels may increase your risk of certain cancers.

You can see that this presents a problem: folic acid (also known as folate) has been shown to reduce risks for your baby, but may increase health risks for you.

What's the solution?

Taking a form of this B vitamin that is more natural and absorbable will reduce your risk of disease rather than raise it. A bioavailable form will also provide added benefits for your baby.

Folic Acid Lowers Many Health Risks

Researchers have discovered that folate reduces a child's risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Mothers who take in amounts of folate that exceed the recommended allowance of 600 micrograms per day, both before conception and in the early stages of pregnancy, enjoy the most benefits.

Taking low amounts of folic acid during this crucial period is associated with a greater risk of developmental delays.

Children whose mothers take an average of 779 micrograms of folate each day--179 micrograms above the recommended daily amount--have the lowest chances of developing these problems.

Folic Acid, Folate, or 5-MTHF? It's So Confusing!

Folate is a blanket term that includes all forms of vitamin B9.

Folic acid, folate, tetrahydrofolate, methyltetrahydrofolate, 5-MTHF, and Metafolin® are all varieties of the same vitamin.

When you see folic acid on the label of your prenatal vitamins, cereal, or bread, know it's the synthetic form of B9. I know of only one brand of prenatal vitamins that uses the active form of folate (5-MTHF), and that's Emerald Labs.

The true active forms of B9 are tetrahydrofolate and methyltetrahydrofolate. You may also see 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), 5-methyltetrahydrofolic acid, or Metafolin® on the shelves. These forms are all easily absorbed by your body and most beneficial for healthy fetal development.

Even if vitamin manufacturers say their folate is more absorbable, it isn't the most efficient unless it's one of these bioavailable forms.

Folic Acid Isn't Always the Real Deal

Scientists first discovered the benefits of folic acid for pregnancy by studying its effects on rats. Lab animals were able to convert folic acid efficiently by using the enzyme dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR).

Unfortunately, humans have very little of this folic-acid-converting enzyme. Depending on genetic makeup, one person may have up to five times more DHFR than another person. Either way, it's only a fraction of the amount that a rat has.

With such a small amount of DHFR, much of the folic acid that is consumed through fortified grains or most prenatal vitamins ends up unmetabolized and remains useless to the body.

Some folic acid exits the body through the urine, but the rest of it stays floating around in the bloodstream.

This free-floating folic acid can cause serious health problems for many people. It may raise your risk of certain cancers or speed the development of cancer from precancerous cells. Synthetic folic acid also increases your need for B12--a nutrient that's essential for brain, nerve, and cell health and development.

Sprouts for the Sprout


Choose Whole Food Sources

Natural forms of folate found in foods (not fortified cereals and grains, but whole foods) are easily utilized by your body and help you to avoid high levels of free folic acid in your bloodstream.

Great food sources of folate include beef liver and chicken liver, lentils, spinach, and asparagus. Lentils contain high amounts of phytic acid, which act as anti-nutrients and rob your body of calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. In order to remove these plant toxins, sprout your lentils.

Get Active!

B9 is a vital nutrient that helps reduce your baby's risks of things like spina bifida, autism, and cognitive problems. It is available in many forms, and not all of them are efficient. Synthetic forms, found in most prenatal vitamins and enriched grains, may even increase your risk of disease. In order to enjoy all of the benefits "folic acid" has to offer, choose a bioactive form that your body can easily absorb and use.

© Liz Davis 2012 Folic Acid for Pregnancy

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