Congenital Heart Defects Prevention with Folic Acid?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in folic acid and congenital heart defects

Does Methyl Folate Work As Well?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

congenital heart defects preventionCan folic acid aid in congenital heart defects prevention?

Every once in a while, a scientific study revolutionizes the practice of medicine and transforms how we lead our lives. The study showing that folic acid supplementation reduced the risk of neural tube defects in newborns was such a study.

First a little history: Dr. Richard Smithells and his colleague Elizabeth Hibbard first started to suspect that folic acid deficiencies were linked to neural tube defects such as spina bifida in the early 60s. By the early 70’s there was enough circumstantial evidence for this link that most doctors were recommending pregnant women start on a prenatal supplement containing folic acid once their pregnancy was confirmed by the obstetrician.

That was when Dr. Smithells convinced the Medical Research Council (MRC) of England to conduct a major, multi-center trial to definitively test his hypothesis. The MRC study (MRC Vitamin Study Research Group, Lancet 338: 131–137, 1991) was terminated in 1991 when it became clear that it was unethical to continue withholding folic acid from the placebo group. The study clearly showed:

  • Folic acid supplementation reduced the incidence of neural tube defects in newborns by 72%.
  • Supplementation with folic acid must start prior to conception for maximum efficacy. If women waited until their pregnancy was confirmed by their doctor, the benefits of folic acid supplementation were much weaker. By then, as the old saying goes: “The horse was already out of the barn”.
  • Subsequent studies have shown that folic acid supplementation is effective at reducing neural tube defects even when the mother and/or baby have MTHFR deficiencies.

As I mentioned before, this study revolutionized medicine and public health in this country.

  • The U. S. Public Health Service and CDC changed their recommendation to “All women of childbearing age should consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent neural tube defects.
  • Starting in 1998, the United States and Canada mandated folic acid fortification of all flour, enriched pasta, and cornmeal.

 

What About Congenital Heart Defects Prevention?

 

folic acid congenital heart defectsWith the clear success of folic acid reducing the risk of neural tube defects, it was natural to ask whether folic acid supplementation might also help with congenital heart defects prevention. Heart defects affect 1% of all newborn babies. While they can often be treated with surgery, that is horribly expensive and not always successful.

As with neural tube defects, previous clinical studies have provided clear evidence that supplementation with at least 400 mcg/day of folic acid reduces the risk of heart defects in newborns. A meta-analysis of 18 clinical studies estimates the risk-reduction at 28% (Scientific Reports, 5: 8506, DOI: 10.1038/srep08506 ).

The authors of this study (Liu et al, Circulation 134: 647-655, 2016 ) set out to determine whether folic acid fortification had significantly reduced newborn heart defects in Canada. They utilized a database of the Canadian Institute for Health Information that covered 98% of births and stillbirths between 1990 and 2011.

Did folic acid supplementation aid in congenital heart defects prevention?

Of the 5,901,701 births and stillbirths in this database, 72,591 were diagnosed with some type of heart defect. The investigators then compared the prevalence of heart defects before and after 1998 to determine the effect of folic acid fortification on heart defects.

 

Does Folic Acid Aid in Congenital Heart Defects Prevention?

 

folic acid fortifiedThe results of the study were clear cut. Folic acid fortification of flour:

  • Reduced heart outflow abnormalities by 27%.
  • Reduced narrowing of the aorta by 23%.
  • Reduced holes in the heart wall separating the chambers by 15%.

Some types of heart defects were not significantly affected by folic acid fortification, so the overall reduction in newborns with heart defects was 11%.

The paper concluded “Although food fortification with folic acid was aimed primarily at reducing neural tube defects, this population based intervention may also have had a beneficial effect on specific types of [heart defects], which in aggregate are more common.”

Overall, folic acid fortification (providing an extra 100 mcg/day folic acid) did not appear to be as effective as supplementation with 400 mcg/day folic acid at reducing total heart defects in newborns. Perhaps because of that, the senior investigator in the study was quoted as saying “Women who are likely to get pregnant should start taking folic acid supplements before getting pregnant as they may not necessarily receive adequate folate from diet alone.”

 

Does Methyl Folate Aid in Congenital Heart Defects Prevention as Well?

methyl folate mythMethyl folate is being widely promoted as safer, more natural, better absorbed, and more effective than folic acid. I have thoroughly debunked the first three claims in my video “The Truth About Methyl Folate.

What about the claim that methyl folate is more effective than folic acid?

The fact is we don’t even know whether methyl folate is even as effective as folic acid. The studies on neural tube defects and heart defects were done with folic acid, not methyl folate. There are literally thousands of studies on the health benefits of folic acid. Almost all of them were done with folic acid, not methyl folate. It is reasonable to assume that methyl folate might be as beneficial as folic acid, but without clinical studies we simply don’t know.

The few clinical studies that have used methyl folate have not included patients that were given folic acid instead of methyl folate. Without that kind of direct comparison, it is impossible to know whether methyl folate is less effective, the same, or more effective than folic acid.

Finally, there is the claim that methyl folate is more effective than folic acid in people with MTHFR deficiencies. Until we start seeing clinical studies directly comparing the effect of methyl folate and folic acid supplementation on health outcomes in people with MTHFR deficiencies, it is impossible to verify that claim. Once again, methyl folate might be less effective, the same, or more effective than folic acid. We simply don’t know.

Folic Acid does aid in congenital heart defects prevention and methyl folate may.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • It has been clearly established that folic acid supplementation reduces the risk of neural tube defects in newborns, and that food fortification with folic acid has also helped reduce the incidence of neural tube defects.
  • Previous studies have also shown that folic acid supplementation reduces the risk of heart defects in newborns.
  • A recent study has shown that food fortification with folic acid also contributes to a reduction in the risk of giving birth to babies with heart defects.
  • The U. S. Public Health Service and CDC recommend “All women of childbearing age should consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to prevent neural tube defects.” Based on the latest studies, folic acid aids in congenital heart defects prevention as well.
  • The studies on neural tube defects and heart defects were done with folic acid, not methyl folate. It is reasonable to assume that methyl folate might be as beneficial as folic acid, but without clinical studies we simply don’t know whether it is even as effective as folic acid.
  • As for other claims about methyl folate, there are no clinical studies I am aware of directly comparing methyl folate and folic acid. Without that kind of study, it is impossible to know whether methyl folate is less effective, the same, or more effective than folic acid.

 

For details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (4)

  • Robin

    |

    No mention here of the 4 possible MTHFR mutations that I understand is present in 30 – 40% of the population. People with this mutation do not adequately process folic acid into methyl folate. For the most affected taking folic acid can be harmful. This can contribute to heart disease and play a role addiction behaviors and heart disease and bipolar disease.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Robin,

      Unfortunately, there is no evidence to back up your statements. I have addressed this in detail in my video “The Truth About Methyl Folate”
      (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzT-iU8UIwo)

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Jeanne

    |

    Dr. Chaney,
    I like what you have to say. You are very sincere and scientific and do not prey on the ignorance of most people. I like the fact that your articles are short, not too technical, and not full of promises. I also like the summary at the end of each article.
    Can you address the issue of clean water and whether or not to add minerals to distilled or purified water? If you have already addressed this issue please send me a link.
    Thank you and God bless your work,
    Jeanne Dart

    Reply

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Latest Article

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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