What Is Methylfolate, and Do You Need It?

Folate is an essential nutrient, meaning that your body requires it to function properly, but it cannot produce it on its own.  Your body needs folate for a variety of reasons, and we acquire it through the food that we eat, and the drugs and supplements that we take.    The reasons we need folate are not the topic of this article, but can be found in many, many articles, on many, many websites (you can even learn about Folate on this website!).  The question that we want to answer today is, “do you need methylfolate.”  It’s a question we have been asked by customers before, and it has an interesting answer.  If you are more interested in the conclusion of the story than you are in the plot, you can scroll straight to the bottom of this article.  What comes between here and there is a brief explanation.  There are a lot of chemical names here, but most can be disregarded as unimportant unless they are in bold.

Folate and Folic Acid

Folate goes by many names, such as Vitamin B9, Vitamin Bc, Vitamin M, pteroyl-glutamic acid and folic acid.  The form of folate found in supplements and fortified foods is created in a controlled environment by breaking down amino acid salts into smaller components, one of which is folic acid.  It is used as a supplement because it is healthy in controlled amounts, highly stable, inexpensive, and easy to produce.  One of the benefits of folic acid over natural folate, found in foods such spinach and beans, is that folic acid has about a 90% absorption rate.  Natural folate, on the other hand, is only absorbed by your body at a rate of about 50%.  This is further hindered by the fact that cooking your food destroys about 40% of the folate content.  Baking can be even more destruction, leaving only around one third of the original folate levels behind.  Despite the advantages of folic acid, it also has its flaws.  One of which is that it's not ready to go to work as soon as it is absorbed by your body.

When folic acid or natural folate is absorbed, your liver converts it into dihydrofolate, and then reduces it into tetrahydrofolate, or THF.  THF is the form that is biologically active, and can easily be converted intothe usable chemical called methylfolate (also known as methyl-THF, MTHF, 5-MTHF and a few more names that we will cover later).  What is important to note here is that when everything is functioning properly, your body can convert both folic acid and natural folate into MTHF.  The problem here is that bit about, “… when everything is functioning properly …”

MTHF

If not everything is functioning properly, problems arise.  Some people have genetic mutations that prevent them from fully harnessing the benefits of folic acid.  Typically, this is caused by a deficiency in the enzyme known as dihydrofolate reductase.  As you may have guessed, this enzyme aids in reducing dihydrofolate into tetrahydrofolate as mentioned earlier.  Most people can convert folic acid without a problem, and only your doctor can tell you if this issue applies to you.

The process of synthetically creating MTHF is relatively new, and is a powerful solution for people with lower levels of the enzymes needed to convert folic acid into MTHF.  Information on this topic is all over the internet, but it is often incomplete or even misleading.  Some supplement companies have taken advantage of the fact that many consumers do not have the correct information.

Without overwhelming you with all of the details, you need to know that the MTHF you see on product labels is not always the MTHF that your body uses.  If you are interested in the biochemistry of this topic, you should do some research on stereoisomers.  It’s a fascinating subject.  These are the reason you see letters in front of chemicals, like the “L” in L-arginine (a very important amino acid) and the “D” in D-panthenol (Vitamin B5).  MTHF has two different forms, and only one form is useful to your body.  With MTHF, you should look for a prefix of “L” or “6(S)” in the name.  Both of these prefixes mean the same thing, and they tell you that you have the form of MTHF that you need.

Staring at product labels until you find the correct form sounds a bit boring and time consuming.  The good news is, you don’t have to do the research yourself; your doctor can do it for you.  Which brings us to the bad news.  Synthetically produced L-5-MTHF (or 6(S)-5-MTHF) is patented.  There are only a few pharmaceutical companies licensed to produce these forms.  Because of the high levels of methylfolate provided by them, pharmaceutical companies release them as prescription medications, not as dietary supplements or even over the counter drugs.  Therefore, if your doctor has informed you that folic acid is not working for you, he or she should have already prescribed you the medication that you need.

MTHF as a Dietary Supplement

So then, what is with all of the MTHF supplements?  Well, those fall into one of three categories:

  • Illegal,
  • Fraudulent, or
  • Inefficient

Illegal:  Many chemical companies have found a way to produce L-5-MTHF.  While these are legal for you to purchase, they are manufactured and sold in violation of US patent law.  These companies are eventually sued into submission.  This is not a wise route for supplement companies, such us ourselves, to take.

Fraudulent:  There is a type of methylfolate on the market that has either the prefixe “D-“ or “6(R)-” in its names.  For our purposes, both the D and 6(R) mean the same thing.  What they mean is that the companies selling these products are trying to swindle you.  Remember the part about two forms?  This is the useless one.  Although chemically this one contains all of the same parts as the L form, those parts are assembled differently.  Your body has no use whatsoever for the D form of MTHF, and it may actually hinder your body’s ability to use the L form.  Any companies trying to peddle these products are betting on you not knowing the difference.

Inefficient:  Other companies have found loopholes in the patent laws, and sell 5-MTHF with no distinction as to whether it is the active L form, or the inactive and useless D form.  There’s no distinction made, because either it contains just the inactive form (fraudulent), or it contains both (inefficient).  The diluted form claims that it is supplying x amount of 5-MTHF, when in fact only half of that is actually having a positive effect.  Meanwhile, the other half is interfering with your body’s ability to utilize the active form.  5-MTHF is expensive, and so getting less than half the bang for your buck is bad.  Being defrauded is even worse.  You are far better off talking to your doctor about a prescription.

If You Skipped to the Bottom

Here are the three most important points that we covered:

  • Most people do not need methylfolate, because our bodies can produce it from folic acid and folate.
  • Only your doctor can tell you if you do need methylfolate.
  • Only your doctor can prescribe legitimate forms of methylfolate for you.
  • Do not buy methylfolate (MTHF) supplements unless you hate money and enjoy being the victim of fraud.

More Useful Folate information!

  • You can maximize your body’s absorption of folic acid in several easy ways:
    • Try taking it on an empty stomach,
    • Take it with Vitamin B12,
    • Take it with Vitamin C,
    • Cut back on your alcohol intake.
  • Did you know that folate, B12 and Iron all work hand in hand? Overdoing any one of these supplements can mask deficiencies in the other two.  When supplementing your diet with one, it is important to address the other two as well.  It’s like balancing a see-saw that has three seats.  Remember to tell your doctor if you are taking supplements, because it will give them a clearer picture of your overall health.

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