Myths of Methyl B12 and Methylfolate Benefits: Part 2

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Methyl B12, Methyl folate, Methylfolate

Debunking The Myths

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Now that I have shared the saga of how the methylfolate and methyl B12 stories progressed from a kernel of truth to myths and eventually to outright lies, let me systematically debunk the myths of the mehtyl B12 and methylfolate benefits.

 

Debunking The Myths of Methylfolate Benefits

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: Methylfolate is natural. It comes from whole food. Folic acid is synthetic.

Fact: I covered this earlier. Methylfolate is chemically synthesized from folic acid. It is physically impossible to extract enough from whole foods.

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: Methylfolate is better utilized by the body than folic acid.

Fact: This claim is based on levels of methylfolate in the blood after taking supplements providing equivalent amounts of methylfolate and folic acid. However, methylfolate has no biological activity in our blood. The measurement that matters is total folate levels (methylfolate plus other folates) in our cells. If you take equivalent amounts of folic acid and methylfolate, you end up with identical folate levels in your cells (B.J. Venn et al, The Journal of Nutrition, 132: 3333-3335, 2002 ). In short, there is no difference in our ability to utilize methylfolate and folic acid.

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: If you have a mutation in the MTHFR gene, folic acid isn’t effective.

Fact: MTHFR slightly increases the need for folic acid (from 400 ug to between 600 and 800 ug), but multiple studies show that folic acid supplementation is effective in people with MTHFR mutations. For example, homocysteine levels are easily measured and are a reliable indicator of methylfolate status. One study has shown that folic acid and methylfolate were equally effective at lowering plasma homocysteine in people who were MTHFR C677T homozygotes (I.P. Fohr et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 75: 275-282, 2002 ). That study also showed that folic acid was more effective than methylfolate at lowering homocysteine in people who were C677T heterozygotes and in people with normal MTHFR activity. Another study showed folic acid was just as effective as a diet providing equivalent quantities of folate from foods at lowering homocysteine levels in people with various MTHFR mutations (P.A. Ashfield-Watt et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76: 180-186, 2002 ).

At present, lowering of homocysteine levels is the only indicator of methylfolate status for which methylfolate and folic acid have been directly compared. However, there are other studies suggesting that folic acid is likely to be effective for people with MTHFR defects.

For example, folic acid has been shown in multiple studies to be effective in preventing neural tube defects (L.M.De-Regil et al, Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews 2010 Oct 6;(10):CD007950. PMID: 20927767 ), which are highly associated with the C677T MTHFR gene defect. Three studies have shown that supplementation with folic acid, B12, and B6 slowed cognitive decline in older people with elevated homocysteine levels (J.Durga et al, The Lancet, 369: 208-216, 2007 ; A.D.Smith et al, PLoS ONE 5(9): e12244. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012244, 2010 ; G.Douaud et al, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, 110: 9523-9528, 2013 ). In contrast, the one study that substituted methylfolate for folic acid showed no effect (J.A. McMahon et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 354: 2764-2769, 2006 ).

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: Folic acid causes cancer.

Fact: The studies suggesting that folic acid supplementation might increase the risk of cancer were all “outliers.”  By that I mean they contradicted many other studies showing no increased risk. Scientists are accustomed to this. We know that studies sometimes come up with conflicting results. In some cases, we can point to an error in experimental design or statistical analysis as the cause of the aberrant results. In other cases, we never methylfolate benefitsknow the reason for the differences, so we go with the weight of experimental evidence (what the majority of studies show). The weight of evidence clearly supports the safety of folic acid.

However, that is not enough. If there is the slightest possibility that something causes cancer, we investigate it further. Consequently, the scientific community followed up with larger studies. Those studies showed either reduced cancer risk or no difference in cancer risk with folic acid supplementation. None of the studies found any evidence that folic acid increased cancer risk. I have covered this in detail for folic acid and colon cancer risk in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor.”

There have also been a couple of small studies suggesting that folic acid might increase the risk of prostate and breast cancer. Although these were small, individual studies, they have been widely hyped by the methylfolate advocates. Once again, the definitive study has been done (S.E. Vollset et al, The Lancet, 381: 1029-1036, 2013 ).

It was a meta-analysis of every placebo controlled study prior to 2010 that analyzed the effect of folic acid supplementation on cancer risk, a total of 13 studies involving over 50,000 subjects. The results were clear cut. Folic acid supplementation caused no increase in overall cancer risk, and no increase in the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, or any other individual cancer. Moreover, the average dose of folic acid in those studies was 2 mg/day, which is 5 times the RDA.

Of course, the bloggers and the companies selling methylfolate supplements ignore the definitive studies showing folic acid does not increase cancer risk. The myths and the lies continue.

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: Folic acid supplementation during pregnancy increases autism risk.

Fact: This myth is based on a recent study presented at an international meeting. There are two important things you should know about this myth.

#1: This study has not yet gone through the peer review process necessary for publication. We do not know if it is a valid study.

#2: The authors of this study are desperately trying to correct the misleading information that is being circulated on the internet about their study. They say their study does not apply to women taking a prenatal supplement containing folic acid during pregnancy. In fact, several studies  show that supplementation with 400 ug of folic acid during pregnancy decreases autism risk.

The authors emphasize that the increase in autism risk in their study was only seen in women with 4 times the recommended levels of folate in their blood at delivery. In other words, it only applies to women taking mega-doses of folic acid during pregnancy. Taking mega-doses of any vitamin during pregnancy is a bad idea.

Unfortunately, the best efforts of the authors have not deterred irresponsible bloggers and journalists from spreading the myth that folic acid supplementation during pregnancy may cause autism. That is incredibly bad advice because it may discourage some expectant mothers from taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid. Multiple studies have shown folic acid supplementation during pregnancy reduces the risk of birth defects.

 

Methylfolate Benefits Myth: Folic acid can mask a B12 deficiency.

Fact: True, but irrelevant if you use a supplement with folic acid and B12 in balance.

For more details and references, watch my “Truth About Methyl Folate” video in the Video Resources section of Health Tips From The Professor.

 

Debunking The Myths of The Methyl B12 Benefits

Along with the methylfolate myths have come the methyl B12 myths. Some supplement manufacturers are now claiming that methyl B12 (methylcobalamin) is more natural and more effective than the cyanocobalamin that has been used in supplements for the past 70 years. The arguments are essentially the same as for methylfolate, so let me briefly debunk the methyl B12 claims as well.

 

methylfolate benefits and methyl b 12Methyl B12 Benefits Myth: Methyl B12 (methylcobalamin) is more natural than cyanocobalamin. We get the methyl B12 in our supplements from foods.

Fact: As with methylfolate, it would be impossible to extract enough methylcobalamin from foods. In fact, most of the methylcobalamin in supplements is chemically synthesized from either cyanocobalamin or hydroxycobalamin. It can never be more natural than it’s starting ingredients. A small amount of methylcobalamin is made from genetically modified bacteria.

 

Methyl B12 Benefits Myth: Cyanocobalamin is toxic.

Fact: You get much more cyanide from common foods such as almonds, lima beans, any fruit with a pit such as peaches, and even some fruits with seeds, such as apples. For example, a single almond contains 200 times more cyanide than a supplement providing the RDA of cyanocobalamin.

 

Methyl B12 Benefits Myth: Because methylcobalamin is one of the active forms of B12 inside cells (adenosylcobalamin is the other), it is better utilized by cells than cyanocobalamin.

Fact: Cyanocobalamin and methylcobalamin are equally well absorbed by the intestine and equally well transported to our cells. At the cell membrane, the cyano and methyl groups are stripped off and cobalamin (B12) binds to a transport protein called transcobalamin II. Once inside the cell either a methyl group or adenosyl group is added back to cobalamin. In short, methylcobalamin offers no advantage over cyanocobalamin because its methyl group is removed before it enters our cells. Once the methyl and cyano groups have been removed, the cell has no way of knowing whether B12 started out in the methyl or cyano form.

 

Methyl B12 Benefits Myth: Methylcobalamin is better utilized than cyanocobalamin for people with methylation defects.

Fact: A methylation defect would affect methylation of cobalamin once it is released from transcobalamin II inside the cell. Because the methyl and cyano groups are removed before cobalamin binds to transcobalamin II, methylcobalamin offers no advantage over cyanocobalamin.

 

What Does This Mean For You?

MTHFR mutations only result in partial loss of activity. Most individuals with MTHFR defects remain symptom free with the RDA, or slightly above the RDA, of folic acid. However, there may be some individuals with a MTHFR defect and additional gene defects in metabolic pathways involving methylation who might benefit from methylfolate. This is due to a phenomenon that geneticists call penetrance and would likely represent a small subset of the population with MTHFR defects. The claims that everyone would benefit from methylfolate instead of folic acid are false. They are contradicted by human metabolism and published clinical studies.

The claims that everyone would benefit from methylcobalamin (methyl B12) instead of cyanocobalamin is even more outrageous. Anyone who takes the time to research how B12 enters our cells would realize that the claim is biochemically impossible.

In short, folic acid has been used for over 80 years and cyanocobalamin for 70 years. There are hundreds of clinical studies showing they are safe and effective, even in most individuals with a MTHFR deficiency. I can’t tell you whether the companies selling methylfolate and methyl B12 are ignorant of basic metabolism and the published studies refuting their claims or whether they are purposely trying to deceive the public—but neither is a good thing.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Last week I shared the story about how the myths about methylfolate and methyl B12 arose and how they eventually became lies. This week I debunked the myths of methyl B12 and methylfolate benefits.

 

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 (7)

  • Susan McNeil

    |

    I Loved these information. Thank you. I just wish there was a way to share it on social media.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      You can share my post on my Steve Chanet Facebook page

      Reply

  • Rose Mary Simmons

    |

    I appreciate your 2-part explanation of methylfolate in such detail. I have celiac and also the MTHFR gene mutation so my nutritionist had me switch to her suggested vitamins and B’s. I knew Shaklee has no equal in quality so was concerned but had no information to go on. I have not felt any better taking other supplements and want to start back on all the things I was taken off of but wondering if someone with the gene mutation just needs to take extra to compensate for lack of absorption?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Rose Mary,
      Your situation is not unique. I have heard from many people with MTHFR mutations who have been put on methyl folate supplements and tell me they haven’t helped. The answer to your question is that MTHFR mutations slightly increase your need for folic acid, but 600 to 800 mcg/day should do it.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Louise Rees

    |

    wish I could get these regularly. I get maybe one every few months.

    Louise Rees REES2380 password lered3d5

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Louise,

      You are on the email list to receive “Health Tips From the Professor”. If you are not receiving it on a regular basis, check to see if it is going to your spam box on weeks you don’t find it in your In box. It goes out every Tuesday. If it is going to your spam box, set the “from” email address so it always goes to your In box.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Sarah

    |

    I’m compound heterozygous for the MTHFR variant and have never had issues with supplements or other products containing folic acid or cyanocobalamin. In fact, I’m taking a really good B complex supplement right now that has a good balance of all eight B vitamins in reasonable doses (none over 250% of the RDA). It contains folic acid and cyanocobalamin. It really seems to make a difference in how I feel, and I hope future test results will confirm it. Thanks so much for the information, but it seems that the myths abound. Searching for MTHFR turns up sites and blogs that pretty much universally say that folic acid is harmful. I’ve had to restrict my research to the few sites like this one and Google Scholar to get the answers I’ve been seeking.

    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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