MTHFR: Why Folic Acid Matters
“Take your folic acid.” It is a simple piece of advice that surely every pregnant woman has heard at some point from her doctor or midwife. Folic acid is indeed important for the development of a baby in the womb. It ensures that DNA is being utilized accurately, that cells are dividing as they should, and that the body is growing correctly. What about after birth? Childhood? Adult years? What about men? The short answer is “yes, folic acid is important, for everyone!” Perhaps, the more interesting part is understanding why it is an important nutrient that we need throughout our entire lifetime.
As folic acid enters the body, through the foods we eat or supplements we take, it is converted into a usable form called methyl folate. The enzyme in the body that is responsible for converting folic acid into this usable form is called MTHFR (methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase). If DNA is the instruction manual for creating substances in the body, and amino acids are the building blocks, then we can think of methyl folate as the foreman on the jobsite, directing how the body puts those amino acids together, how quickly and to what extent work gets done on a day to day basis. Methyl folate is required for the creation of every cell in the body, such as compounds like neurotransmitters and immune cells. It also plays an important role in how the body produces energy, processes hormones, and detoxifies dangerous substances through the liver. You can imagine then, if your body has a genetic mutation involving the MTHFR enzyme, how it could affect your quality of life, either in subtle or more overt ways.
Often, the need for MTHFR testing becomes more apparent with certain symptoms and conditions. These include anxiety, depression, panic disorders, blood clots, heart problems, miscarriage, fertility issues, diabetes, autoimmune and thyroid disorders, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain disorders, substance abuse/addiction, autism, and ADHD.
Luckily, in the case of MTHFR mutations, knowledge is power! Genetic testing easily identifies mutations in the MTHFR enzyme and guides treatments that increase the level of methyl folate in the body. Unfortunately, it is not always as easy as simply giving methyl folate to someone who is deficient. MTHFR is part of a larger pathway in the body, in which this enzyme is just one metabolic step. If other parts of the pathway are showing mutations as well, it will require other nutrient strategies beyond just addressing methyl folate. This is why it is important to consult with a physician who understands the intricacies of genetic testing and can guide you through safe and effective treatment strategies.