Vitamins, Diet, and Health: The New Year Genetic Matters

The beginning of a new year is refreshing. Many of us are motivated to establish personal goals for lifestyle improvements including diet and health. Goals may include increased exercise, better diets, and the use of vitamins. It is a specific vitamin that is the focus for this discussion.

Hopefully, you are aware of folic acid and its importance in reducing the risk of birth defects of the spine and brain (such as spina bifida). Jane Dean, RN at the GGC has been instrumental in educating South Carolina citizens and healthcare providers on the use of folic acid and in the state’s Neural Tube Defect (NTD) Surveillance and Prevention Program. But what exactly is folic acid and are there other positive health implications in addition to NTD prevention?

“Folic acid,” “folate,” and vitamin B9 are terms used interchangeably; however, to be specific, folate is the naturally occurring vitamin found in dark, leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits while folic acid is the synthetic form of folate found in fortified cereals and breads. Folate was first identified in the 1930s as the substance that prevents anemia during pregnancy and its name is from the Latin word “folium”, for leaf. Folate functions to produce and maintain new cells, to make DNA and RNA, and to regulate blood levels of an amino acid called homocysteine.

The role and effectiveness of folic acid in adult diseases is a current topic of research and debate. Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death in the US. There are many risk factors for this disease including high levels of homocysteine. Research supports the effectiveness of folic acid in lowering homocysteine levels but this does not directly imply that folic acid will reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Because folate is involved in the synthesis and maintenance of DNA, there is evidence that low levels of folate can cause damage to DNA that may lead to cancer. A large study tracking 88,000 female nurses from 1980-1994 indicated that folic acid supplementation in these women resulted in a lowered risk of developing colon cancer. While results are encouraging, larger studies involving both men and women are needed.

While these initial findings are encouraging for folic acid supplementation, much remains to be studied and the traditional advice of eating a balanced diet, exercising, and taking a daily multi-vitamin containing folic acid is still the recommendation for a health lifestyle.