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

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure in Young, Healthy Adults?

Posted August 14, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in healthy adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adultsThe literature on the potential health benefits of omega-3s is very confusing. That’s because a lot of bad studies have been published. Many of them never determined the omega-3 status of their subjects prior to omega-3 supplementation. Others relied on dietary recalls of fish consumption, which can be inaccurate.

Fortunately, a much more accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes. Using modern technology, it can be determined from a single finger prick blood sample. It is a very accurate reflection of omega-3 intake relative to other fats in the diet over the past few months. More importantly, it is a measure of the omega-3 content of your cell membranes, which is a direct measure of your omega-3 nutritional status.

A recent extension of the Framingham Heart Study reported that participants with an Omega-3 Index >6.8% had a 39% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those with an Omega-3 Index <4.2% (WS Harris et al, Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 12: 718-724, 2018 ). Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk, while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk. For reference, the average American has an Omega-3 Index in the 4-5% range. In Japan, where fish consumption is much higher and cardiovascular risk much lower, the Omega-3 Index is in the 9-11% range.

Previous studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure to a modest extent. Thus, it is not surprising that more recent studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, those studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Unfortunately, there were no studies looking at that population. The current study was designed to fill that gap.

 

How Was The Study Done?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young healthy adultsThe current study (M.G. Filipovic et al, Journal of Hypertension, 36: 1548-1554, 2018 ) was based on data collected from 2036 healthy adults, aged 25-41, from Liechtenstein. They were participants in the GAPP (Genetic and Phenotypic Determinants of Blood Pressure) study. Participants were excluded from the study if they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and were taking medication to lower their blood pressure. They were also excluded if they had heart disease, chronic kidney disease, other severe illnesses, obesity, sleep apnea, or daily use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Blood samples were collected at the time of their enrollment in the study and frozen for subsequent determination of Omega-3 Index. Blood pressure was also measured at their time of enrollment in two different ways. The first was a standard blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office.

For the second measurement they were given a wearable blood pressure monitor that recorded their blood pressure over 24 hours every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes while they were sleeping. This is considered more accurate than a resting blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office because it records the variation in blood pressure, while you are sleeping, while you are exercising, and while you go about your everyday activities.

 

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure In Young, Healthy Adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults equipmentNone of the participants in the study had significantly elevated blood pressure. The mean systolic and diastolic office blood pressures were 120±13 and 78±9 respectively. The average Omega-3 Index in this population was 4.6%, which is similar to the average Omega-3 Index in the United States.

When they compared the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • The office measurement of systolic and diastolic blood pressure was decreased by 3.3% and 2.6% respectively
  • While those numbers appear small, the differences were highly significant.
  • The 24-hour blood pressure measurements showed a similar decrease.
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index. [In studies of this kind, a linear dose-response is considered an internal validation of the differences observed between the group with the highest Omega-3 Index and the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index.]

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

 

What Does This Mean For You?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults questionPerhaps I should first comment on the significance of the relatively small decrease in blood pressure observed in this study.

  • These were young adults, all of whom had normal or near normal blood pressure.
  • The difference in Omega-3 Index was rather small (5.8% to 4.6%). None of the participants in the study were at the 8% or above that is considered optimal.
  • Liechtenstein is a small country located between Switzerland and Spain. Fish consumption is low and omega-3 supplement consumption is rare.

Under these conditions, even a small, but statistically significant, decrease in blood pressure is remarkable.

We should think of this study as the start of the investigation of the relationship between omega-3 status and blood pressure. Its weakness is that it only shows an association between high Omega-3 Index and low blood pressure. It does not prove cause and effect.

Its strength is that it is consistent with many other studies showing omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure. Furthermore, it suggests that the effect of omega-3s on blood pressure may also be seen in young, healthy adults who have not yet developed high blood pressure.

Finally, the authors suggested that a diet rich in omega-3s might reduce the incidence of high blood pressure by slowing the age-related increase in blood pressure that most Americans experience. This idea is logical, but speculative at present.

However, the GAPP study is designed to provide the answer to that question. It is a long-term study with follow-up examinations scheduled every 3-5 years. It will be interesting to see whether the author’s prediction holds true, and a higher Omega-3 Index is associated with a slower increase in blood pressure as the participants age.

 

Why Is The Omega-3 Index Important?

 

The authors of this study said: “The Omega-3 Index is very robust to short-term intake of omega-3 fatty acids and reliably reflects an individual’s long-term omega-3 status and tissue omega-3 content. Therefore, the Omega-3 Index has the potential to become a cardiovascular risk factor as much as the HbA1c is for people with diabetes…” That is a bit of an overstatement. HbA1c is a measure of disease progression for diabetes because it is a direct measure of blood sugar control.

In contrast, Omega-3 Index is merely a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, if it is further validated by future studies, it is likely to be as important for predicting cardiovascular risk as are cholesterol levels and markers of inflammation.

However, to me the most important role of Omega-3 Index is in the design of future clinical studies. If anyone really wants to determine whether omega-3 supplementation reduces cardiovascular risk, high blood pressure, diabetes or any other health outcome they should:

  • Start with a population group with an Omega-3 Index in the deficient (4-5%) range.
  • Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids in a double blind, placebo-controlled manner.
  • Show that supplementation brought participants up to an optimal Omega-3 Index of 8% or greater.
  • Look at health outcomes such as heart attacks, cardiovascular deaths, hypertension, stroke, or depression.
  • Continue the study long enough for the beneficial effects of omega-3 supplementation to be measurable. For cardiovascular outcomes the American Heart Association has stated that at least two years are required to obtain meaningful results.

These are the kind of experiments that will be required to give definitive, reproducible results and resolve the confusion about the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids.

 

The Bottom Line

 

An accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes.

Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk.

Previous studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, these studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Until now, there have been no studies looking at that population.

The study described in this article was designed to fill that gap. The participants in this study were ages 25-41, were healthy, and none of them had elevated blood pressure.

When the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) was compared with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were decreased
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index.

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

Let me translate that last sentence into plain English for you. The authors were saying that optimizing omega-3 intake in young adults may slow the age-related increase in blood pressure and reduce the risk of them developing high blood pressure as they age. This may begin to answer the question “Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in young, healthy adults?”

Or even more simply put: Aging is inevitable. Becoming unhealthy is not.

For more 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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