Methylfolate and Methyl B12 – Myths or Lies? Part 1

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Methyl folate

How Did The Myths Arise?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

methylated b liesHow did methylfolate become the center of a myth? 

How are the lies of the food supplement industry created? Some of them start innocently enough. They are often based on a kernel of truth which is misinterpreted by some well-meaning medical doctors. It’s not their fault. We teach future doctors what I call “metabolism light” in medical school. There simply isn’t room in the medical curriculum to teach all the details and nuances of human metabolism. We also try to teach them the basics of how to interpret the scientific literature. However, it takes years of experience to get really good at picking out the strengths and weaknesses of clinical studies.

The doctors form their hypothesis and test it on a few patients. If it works, they publish a paper. At that point their idea is picked up by the “sensationalist” bloggers. These are the bloggers who like to focus on the sensational. They delight in writing about “new findings” that go against what the medical profession has been telling you for years. The bloggers don’t stop there. They usually expand the claims. They ‘cherry pick” the scientific literature by quoting only studies that support their viewpoint, and ignoring studies that refute it. In short, they put together a very compelling story. Soon the story is picked up by other bloggers who embellish it further. After it appears in enough sites, people start believing it. A myth is born.

Then supplement companies get in the act. They sense there is money to be made. They manufacture supplements to provide nutrients supported by the myths. They embellish the mythology even more and put together a compelling story to market their products. This is where the mythology becomes deception. Companies have the responsibility to design their products based on the best science. They have an obligation to tell the truth about their products. They know, or should know, that all their claims are not true. When they make claims they know cannot be true, they are lying to you.

The saga of the methylated B vitamins is a perfect example of how observations based on a kernel of truth became myths and eventually became downright lies. Let me share that story with you.

 

The Kernel Of Truth About Methylfolate

 

methylated b folic acidLet’s start with the “kernel of truth” that launched the whole methylfolate saga. It started with a doctor who was having a very difficult time finding a solution for a patient with some significant health issues. The doctor ordered a genetic test and discovered the patient had a deficiency in the methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene. The doctor remembered the reaction catalyzed by MTHFR, and a light bulb went off. “Eureka”, he said. His patient must be unable to make N5-methyltetrahydrofolate (commonly referred to as methyl folate), and methylfolate is required for some very important methylation reactions in the cell.

He gave his patient methylfolate, and the patient’s symptoms got better. The doctor leapt to the conclusion that other patients with MTHFR deficiency needed methyl folate as well. Many of those patients responded to methylfolate as well. He didn’t bother to check whether they responded equally well to folic acid. He just assumed methylfolate was the magic elixir. He wrote a paper on his clinical observations, and the methylfolate story was launched. It all seemed so logical. However, the story was not nearly as straight forward as the doctor and the people publicizing his findings assumed. Let me walk you through some “Metabolism 101”. Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz.

 

Why The Original Assumptions About Methylfolate Were Misleading

 

MTHFR mutants only have a partial loss of activity.

  • Individuals with 2 copies of a mutation from A to C at position 1298 of the MTHFR gene(A1298C homozygotes) comprise about 5% of the US population. They have 60% enzyme activity and appear to be normal in clinical studies.
  • Individuals with 2 copies of a mutation from C to T at position 677 of the MTHFR gene (C677T homozygotes) have 30% enzyme activity. They comprise about 10% of the US population. C677T homozygotes often have elevated homocysteine levels. The homozygous C677T mutation is associated with depression, anxiety, and mood swings in some people, but not in others (I will come back to the significance of that qualifying statement later).
  • C677T heterozygotes (one mutant gene) have 65% activity and are normal.

We Don’t Need 100% MTHFR Activity

space shuttleOur human body is wonderfully designed. For many of our most essential metabolic reactions we have built in redundancy. We don’t require 100% activity of key enzymes. This helps protect us from bad effects of mutations as they arise.

The best analogy I can think of is the US space program. Most space vehicles had built in redundancy so that if one system failed, the mission could go on. For example, you may remember the Hubble space telescope. It was launched with four gyroscopes to keep the telescope pointed in the right direction. After a few years, one gyroscope gave out. That was not a problem because there were three left. A few years latter the second gyroscope gave out. Again, there was no problem because there were still two gyroscopes left. It was only after the third gyroscope gave out that Hubble became a bit “wonky”, and a space shuttle was sent up to replace the gyroscopes. It is the same with MTHFR. Only when you get down to around 30% activity, does it become a bit wonky”. (That’s about as non-technical as I get.)

Not Everyone With MTHFR Deficiency Experiences Symptoms

This is due to a phenomenon my geneticist friends refer to as penetrance. Simply put, that means that not everyone with the same mutation experiences the same severity of symptoms. That is because the severity of a mutation is influenced by diet, lifestyle, and genetic background. Let me start with genetic background. In terms of MTHFR mutants you can think of genetic background as being mutations in a related methylation pathway. People who have a mutation in both MTHFR and a gene in a related pathway will experience more severe symptoms and are more likely to require methyl folate. Once you understand penetrance, you realize that individuals requiring methyl folate may represent only a small subset of people with MTHFR mutations.

Penetrance is a concept that most proponents of the methylfolate hypothesis completely ignore. The most severe MTHFR mutation (C677T homozygote) increases the probability that individuals will exhibit symptoms, but some individuals with that mutation are completely normal. Now that you understand the concepts of redundancy and penetrance, you can understand why that is.

 

When Did The Kernel of Truth About Methylfolate Become A Myth?

 

methylated b mythsUp to this point the hype around methylfolate could be chalked up to an honest misunderstanding. The doctors who published the original papers may not have known that MTHFR mutations only resulted in a partial reduction in enzyme activity. They probably didn’t know the concepts of redundancy (our cells don’t need 100% enzyme activity) or penetrance (the same mutation may cause severe symptoms in some patients and have no effect in others). It seemed logical to assume that everyone with a MTHFR mutation might do better with methyl folate supplementation. That was incorrect, but it was an honest mistake.

However, the message was picked up by the bloggers who specialize in sensational stories, especially stories that contradict what experts have been telling you for years. They picked up the methyl folate story and distorted it beyond recognition. They knew that “natural” is a buzz word, so they told you that methylfolate was natural and folic acid is synthetic (I exposed that lie earlier). They told you that methylfolate was better utilized than folic acid. They told you that methylfolate was more effective than folic acid. They told you folic acid was toxic. It was going to increase your risk of heart disease and cancer. Suddenly, it was no longer about people with MTHFR deficiency. You were being told that everyone should avoid folic acid and use methylfolate instead.

methylated b folicOn the surface, these pronouncements should not have passed the “If it sounds too good to be true…” test, or in this case, the “If it sounds too bad to be true…” test. You were being asked the believe that folic acid, which has been in use for over 80 years and is backed by hundreds of studies showing it is safe and effective, was neither safe nor effective. You were asked to believe that the government was poisoning you by fortifying foods with folic acid.

However, to make their blogs sound more convincing, they listed clinical studies supporting their stories. The problem is they “cherry picked” the studies that supported their story and ignored the rest. Their bias was particularly outrageous when it came to the “story” that folic acid increases cancer risks. They ignored 10 or 20 studies showing no cancer risk and reported one suggesting it might increase risk. I call that deceptive.

Unfortunately, the myths created by the bloggers have been repeated often enough that many people now believe they are true. I will debunk their myths next week, but first let me touch on how their deceptions became downright lies.

 

When Did The Myths About Methylfolate and Methyl B12 Become Lies?

 

If you are writing a blog, you are covered by “freedom of speech.” You can say whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be true. However, if you are a supplement manufacturer, you are held to a higher standard. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. You can no longer cherry pick the “facts” you like and ignore the rest. You are ethically obligated to research all the available literature and be guided by the best scientific evidence.

Reputable companies have been guided by the scientific evidence and have not jumped on the methylfolate bandwagon. They know folic acid is both safe and effective in a wide variety of clinical situations. They also know that, while methylfolate may be just as effective as folic acid, its potential is largely unproven at this point. It has not been tested in many clinical situations.

Less reputable companies, however, sensed money to be made by capitalizing on the buzz around methylfolate. They repeated the myths of the bloggers to claim that their products were superior to others on the market. They call it marketing. I call it lying. They have an obligation to fact check their claims, and only make claims that are true.

It gets worse. Since lots of people already believed they needed methylfolate, why not extend the claim to one of the methylated B vitamins, methyl B12? That would boost sales even more. The claims for methyl B12 were even more outrageous than for methylfolate. There wasn’t even a “kernel of truth” like MTHFR deficiency to serve as a foundation. The claim was the methyl B12 was needed because of some sort of ambiguous “methylation deficiency”. The lies had become whoppers.

Next week I will debunk the methylfolate and methyl B12 myths. Stay tuned.

 

The Bottom Line

 

This week I have shared the story about how the myths about methylfolate and methyl B12 arose and how they eventually became lies. Next week I will debunk the myths.

 

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 (3)

  • Caroline

    |

    I can remember in my DAOM doctoral studies one presenter was talking about methylation and everyone but me knew nothing, so he asked if our Shaklee was methylated and knowing how our B Complex is made, I said yes because I knew he would discuss it as not because of your article. Love our B Complex and sell lots of it, and I even call it a “cheap drunk” for lighting the spirit, energy and well being. I do enjoy your articles because of your educational teaching/history and that always helps me.

    Reply

  • Fran

    |

    I am a person who almost died because of MTHFR. Because my ability to detox was so poor, chemical pollution built up to extreme levels. All this happened while I was taking Shaklee B complex for thirty years prior to becoming sick. I contend that I would not have become so deathly ill if the B vitamins I was taking had been the correct methyl form!! I also will say that your “scientific” research is flawed and gives the wrong answer because you tested blood, not what actually gets into the cells. It does not matter what is in the blood, if it cannot get into the cells. That is the case with folic acid. Contact Dr. Ben Lynch. He has been researching this for many years. He has the correct answers. YOU do not.
    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you about this. I’d be happy to speak directly with you regarding my severe experience with MTHFR, and how the methyl forms of folate and B12 saved my life.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Fran,

      I have consistently said that there are a few people who need methylfolate. These are individuals with several other mutations affecting pathways involving methylation reactions in addition to MTHFR. Situations like yours are exceedingly rare because multiple mutations are required. Published clinical studies show that most people with MTHFR deficiency do quite well with folic acid.

      Folic acid gets into cells quite easily and is immediately converted to folates, including methylfolate – even in individuals with MTHFR deficiency. Again, this is based on published clinical studies.

      I have been in touch with Dr. Ben Lynch and have pointed out the errors in his assertions. Many of his “answers” are contradicted by published clinical studies.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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