Folic acid deficiency may affect future generations

Groundbreaking research published in the journal Cell (September 2013) suggests that folic acid deficiency may have detrimental health consequences for several generations.1 This underscores the importance of getting enough folic acid, especially for women of childbearing age who could become pregnant.

Working in collaboration, researchers from the Universities of Calgary and Cambridge (UK) discovered that a mutation in a gene needed for folic acid metabolism, led to developmental abnormalities in several generations of mice. While this study looked at genes, researchers believe that folic acid deficiency in the diet could have a similar multi-generational impact on health in humans.

We have known for some time that folic acid deficiency in women of childbearing age can cause severe developmental problems, including spina bifida, heart defects and placental abnormalities, in their immediate offspring. In this animal study, researchers were surprised by the longer term effects they found. They suggest that the great or great-great grandchildren of a parent who has a folic acid deficiency may have developmental disorders and health problems as a result.

Researchers used mice in this study because the way they metabolize folic acid is similar to humans and because mutations in the same genes or folic acid deficiency result in similar developmental problems in mice. Prior to this study, little was known about how folic acid deficiency led to the wide range of health problems associated with it. This new study shed light on the role of folic acid (known as folate in the form that is naturally found in food) during development.

Their study showed that the detrimental health effects of a genetic mutation in one generation may be passed down to future generations through a process known as epigenetics – that turns genes on and off. Abnormalities in future generations may occur as a result of the wrong genes being turned on or off.
While the aim of this study was to understand how a specific genetic mutation would affect folate metabolism, the findings suggest that a lack of folate in the diet may have even more far-reaching consequences than previously recognized.

Health authorities around the globe, including Health Canada have taken steps to fortify certain foods in the food supply with folic acid. In Canada, white flour, enriched pasta, and enriched corn meal are fortified with folic acid. The results of this study indicate that it may take several generations for the full benefits of the folic acid fortification that was implemented in Canada in 1998 to be realized.

The findings also reinforce how important it is for all women who could become pregnant to take a multivitamin containing 0.4 mg of folic acid every day, as recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada. To help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, women should start taking the vitamin supplement at least three months before they get pregnant and continue throughout the first three months of pregnancy. Since some women have different needs, it’s always best to talk to your health care professional to find the supplement that is best for you.

A healthy balanced diet before and throughout pregnancy, with plenty of food sources of folate is also vital to help promote optimal health in both mother and baby. Keep in mind that women of childbearing age who could become pregnant need both food sources and a supplement to meet daily needs for folic acid.

Food sources of folate include vegetables and fruit (especially green and orange), legumes, eggs, nuts, and grain products made with enriched wheat flour. For example, eggs are a good source of folate. Two large eggs (i.e. a Food Guide serving) naturally provide 30% of the Daily Value for folate. Women who could become pregnant are encouraged to eat well with Canada’s Food Guide.

See how your intake of food sources of folate measures up.

Learn more about Folate for good health at every age.

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1. Padmanabhan N et al. Mutation in Folate Metabolism Causes Epigenetic Instability and Transgenerational Effects on Development. Cell, 2013; 155 (1): 81-93.