Spoiler alert: it isn’t by taking folic acid
Women with access to good health care typically know that during pregnancy, their self-care game needs to level up. After all, in that stage of life, self-care isn’t really just self-care; it’s also tiny human care. Taking high quality, prenatal specific vitamins is one of the first things a doctor will recommend. Folate, or vitamin B9, should be right up near the top of the list of essential ingredients in a prenatal vitamin.
For a developing fetus, folate plays a big role in prevention of neural tube defects–defects in the brain, spine, or spinal cord. That said, getting healthy doses of folate while planning for pregnancy and from day one of pregnancy itself, is important. And your doctor will probably explain that to you.
What your doctor may not explain to you is that getting your daily dose of folate isn’t always as straightforward as looking for 400 mcg of folic acid on the nutrition label of your prenatal vitamin. More moms-to-be than you think (as many as 70% of them, whether or not they’re diagnosed) really can’t use plain ole folic acid. That is, their bodies can’t.
Right. It’s a little startling and a lot confusing to hear that folic acid probably isn’t going to cut it as your folate source when that goes against pretty much everything you’ve heard, and when there are bottles of straight up folic acid right where they should be in the alpha order of the vitamin aisle. It is, nonetheless, true.
So here’s what we mean. When the medical advice out there, whether from what we read or what our doctors tell us, says that our bodies, and especially our developing babies, need “folic acid,” the more accurate statement would be that they need folate. A vitamin may enter the body as folic acid, but it then goes through a complex process of conversion, transport, and metabolism before it actually benefits the body. At that point, it has become “methylfolate.”
This must be about the “70% of moms-to-be” thing you mentioned above.
Exactly. Studies have shown that up to 70% of the population has a genetic variation known as an MTHFR variant, that blocks or highly impairs the conversion of folic acid into a bioavailable nutrient. Translation: folic acid is basically useless to people with MTHFR. Folic acid, likely because of its low cost, is widely used in supplements, and has been added to a smorgasbord of foods on the market in the U.S. The reality, though, is that there are many people, including pregnant women, who intake folic acid with healthy intentions and receive little to no real health benefit.
What’s more, folic acid that sits around in the body not getting converted into folate can actually cause additional problems. It can block receptors from absorbing whatever amounts of helpful folate a person does metabolize. Other studies have even linked unmetabolized folic acid to increased cancer risk and have shown folic acid intake to mask or exacerbate symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency.
Here’s where L-methylfolate comes in.
Folate IS available through diet, since it naturally occurs in some foods, like spinach; however, even the folate provided by food must be further processed by the liver into methylfolate, which is the form your body can use. L-Methylfolate supplements are already converted, ready to be absorbed and metabolized by the body. For individuals with MTHFR variation, this means that those pesky conversion and transport steps have already been done for them. Where their folate receptors were closed for business for folic acid, they welcome the benefits of methylfolate with open arms.
For moms growing tiny humans, truth: it is challenging to go to the store and find a prenatal vitamin that contains methylfolate. Fear not. There are great multivitamins that actually contain the needed amounts of L-methylfolate in them–not just folic acid. The experts at Methyl Life have researched and produced high quality methylfolate supplements, and they’re accessible to you.
No matter where you look for your supplements or what type you’re seeking, make it a habit to look at all the facts on the label to ensure that the source of your vitamins are in fact the most effective, most readily metabolized source. Taking care of yourself is taking care of that beautiful baby.