Vitamins have promised extraordinary benefits for many years, including hopes of curing colds, ending cancer, slowing aging, boosting energy. The very name vitamin suggests magical powers.
But the record is quite disappointing. All vitamins offer nutritional benefits that are met by eating very tiny amounts of them, but with one exception, taking extra turns out to offer no benefits whatsoever. Famous vitamins whose claims have come and gone include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, B complexes, etc. Claims of powerful benefits for Vitamin D are still under scrutiny, but no positive proof of great benefit has been found yet.
One vitamin stands alone as having proof that taking more than is found in a regular diet could offer a benefit, and that is folic acid (aka, folate, Vitamin B9, Vitamin Bc).
Folic acid, and only folic acid, has been shown to change a real outcome in a population.
The Surprising Benefits of Folic Acid
If pregnant women take 400 mcg of folic acid during pregnancy, they nearly eliminate spina bifida, a congenital defect in spinal cord development. We know it works because when pregnant women did this, the number of children with spina bifida (aka myelomeningocele) actually dropped dramatically.
In the last few years, two new benefits of folic acid appear to be real as well.
The first reported was that if women take 400 mcg of folic acid a day prior to conception and throughout pregnancy, the risk of their child developing autism drops 5-fold. This is an association in a published study. We have not seen actual drops in the rate of autism in response to taking folic acid in this manner, but the finding does make it plausible that we could see a drop with this use of folic acid.
Now comes a report that studied the impact of blood levels of folic acid in pregnant women on the chance that their babies would grow up to be obese. The researchers looked at mother-child pairs in China, Chicago, Boston, and several other cities. They studied over 1500 such pairs, and followed the babies born to an average age of 6.
They then asked, what is the difference in risk of becoming obese by age 6 if the mother had a high or low folic acid blood level. It turns out, when comparing the children of moms whose folic acid blood level was in the top three-quarters versus those in the lowest-quarter, there was 45% more obesity in kids whose mom’s folic acid levels were in the lowest quarter.
For obese moms, those who had the lowest folic acid blood levels had children with triple the risk of obesity of those moms not in the lowest level.
- Vitamins have been shown to offer no benefit when taken in amounts that exceed what you eat, with one exception: folic acid.
- One proven benefit of taking folic acid early in pregnancy is the near elimination of the chance of your child having spina bifida, an astounding benefit.
- An association not yet empirically proven is a dramatic drop in your child developing autism if the mother takes 400 mcg daily from before conception through pregnancy, a five-fold drop.
- Now comes an early observation that raises the possibility of a third benefit: actually changing the likelihood that your child will become obese. This benefit is not seen with the 400 mcg dose, but only if the actual blood level of folic acid in the Mom goes up. So, this benefit requires a blood test.
- The elimination of spina bifida is a proven benefit of folic acid. The reduction in risk for autism and obesity are highly enticing possibilities, not yet fully proven.
- How interesting that the chemical profile of a Mom in pregnancy could define if her child will become obese? It makes us rethink obesity.
To Your Health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin