Monday, August 8, 2011

Folate - Your grades may depend on it.

A new study out of Sweden provides more evidence of the importance of folate (aka vitamin B9 or folic acid). In this study, the grades of teenagers in school were associated with their Folate intake. The Swedish research shows teenagers with insufficient levels of folate were found to have lower grades than teens who have a high folate intake. This study is important because the results showed that the benefits of increased folate intake were independent of socioeconomic factors (i.e., wealth or education of family).

It is widely known that people at either extreme of the age spectrum (babies and older adults) and pregnant women need more folate to prevent serious health problems. Babies with low levels of folate run the risk of serious cognitive development issues. Older people run the risk of developing dementia if they don’t get enough folate. Pregnant women should be especially careful to be sure that they are getting enough folic acid, as insufficient amounts are known to cause particularly terrible birth defects (most commonly, Neural Tube Defects).

Unfortunately, very little is known about what the effects of folate deficiency are on people with ages somewhere between these two age groups (very young and very old). This study, however, is one of the first to show a direct link between adequate folate intake and a benefit in teenagers.

What do we need folate for?

Our bodies use folate and folic acid in a number of important processes. While crucial to this study, there are other functions of folate besides playing a role in the development and proper functioning of the brain. Folic acid is required for our bodies to be able to synthesize, repair, and methylate DNA. It is especially crucial for any process that requires rapid cell division or growth, such as pregnancy and infancy. This may be a reason why this study showed such a benefit, as teenagers often grow rapidly during puberty.

Among the common symptoms of folate deficiency are mental confusion, forgetfulness or other cognitive declines, mental depression, and irritability. Unfortunately, these are also common symptoms of being a teenager, so it could just be that a minor deficiency of folate is simply being written off as just the normal teenager milieu.

How do we get more?

Folate and folic acid get their names from the Latin word folium ("leaf"), from which we get words in English like foliage, which means “plant leaves”. It should be no surprise, then, that leafy vegetables are a principal source of this vital nutrient. Folic acid can also be found in dietary sources such as brewers yeast (and products like Vegemite, made from this), liver, and kidney. In Western diets, however, fortified cereals and bread may be a larger dietary source for most people. Sweden does not allow their foods to be “fortified” so leafy vegetables, milk, cheese, and yogurt are their primary sources of folate.

Folic acid is also available as a supplement, primarily marketed towards pregnant women, but it appears that we should all be more careful to be getting enough folate either in our diets or through supplementation. If you choose to increase your folate through supplementation, it is important that you choose a high quality supplement.

As with any change to your diet or starting a regimen of supplementation, you should consult with your health care provider to make sure that it is right for you. Pregnant women should be especially careful.


Look for our next post where we will discuss the characteristics of what makes a superior supplement, and how to choose a quality supplement you can trust.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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