What we'll cover

⚡In a nutshell

  • Folate is one of the most important vitamins you can take when conceiving.
  • Certain people struggle to get the benefits from particular types of folate.
  • "Folic acid" is a synthetic form of the vitamin, whereas "methylated folate" is naturally occurring.
  • 1 in 3 women have a gene variant that impacts how we absorb folate, which makes folic acid not a great option.
  • It is recommended that women start taking a supplement with Methylated Folate in it between one and six months prior to conceiving (as well as for the first three months of pregnancy).  

💊 Folate = The Good Stuff

We all want to give our kids the best start in life. And that starts even before we fall pregnant.

Here’s the thing: the weeks before and at the start of our pregnancy are some of the most crucial. They lay the groundwork for our baby’s neural development (a.k.a. what will become their brain) as well as their healthy growth and development.

And out of all the vitamins you need to take when conceiving, folate is arguably one of the most important. But not all of us can get the best benefits out of certain types of folate. So, let’s dive into what type of folate you should be looking for in your prenatal, and what’s easier for our bodies (and our babies) to absorb.

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👩‍⚕️ What's the difference?

Let’s start with the basics.

Folate is an umbrella term for a type of B-vitamin that’s naturally present in a bunch of foods. It enables our body to produce DNA and supports red blood cell formation and neural tube development. As you’d expect, this is especially important when we’re trying to conceive.

While folate is found in a range of foods (such as leafy greens, legumes, avocado and fruit), it’s also a common vitamin supplement. But not all types of vitamins use the same type of folate.

Here are two of the most common types of folate you might come across.

Folic acid

Unlike the type of folate found naturally in fruit and veggies, folic acid is a synthetic form of this vitamin. That means it’s only found in fortified foods (where we add-in ingredients, like folic acid, that aren’t naturally meant to be there), supplements, and pharmaceutical products.

But here’s the thing: folic acid relies on our body converting this ingredient into Methylated Folate to ensure our body can effectively absorb it.

That means folic acid only works efficiently when our bodies are able to make this conversion happen (which isn’t the case for everyone).

Methylated Folate

On the flip side, Methylated Folate (5-MTHF) is a naturally occurring type of folate. Unlike folic acid, it isn’t synthetic and doesn’t need to be converted by our bodies in order to be useful.

Methylated Folate has what’s known in the medical world as “high bioavailability” - which is jargon for being super easy for everyone to use.

It makes sense: this type of folate cuts out the middleman and ditches the need for our bodies to go through a complex conversion process to ensure we soak up the maximum benefits.

In fact, studies have shown that Methylated Folate is the most common folate found in the human body, meaning our bodies already understand how to process and absorb it effectively.

🤔 Why the struggle?

To get to the bottom of this question, we need to get our head around a common type of genetic variant that can prevent many of us from absorbing folic acid.

🧬 Getting to know the MTHFR gene

Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (or MTHFR for short) is a gene that sends messages to our body to produce the MTHFR protein, which helps our body to process folate.

As these genes are passed on genetically, you’ll receive two copies of the MTHFR gene (one from your mum and one from your dad). The combination of genes you inherit from your parents will determine what kind of variant you end up with.  

So, why’s all this matter? There’s a specific gene variant (known as MTHFR C677T or, sometimes its partner in crime: A1298C) many of us have that disrupts the way our body converts and absorbs the MTHFR protein and therefore how we process folate.

👖 How common is the MTHFR gene variant?

In broad terms, 1 in 3 women are shown to have this specific gene variant that impacts how we process folate.

However, some studies suggest there are differences in the prevalence of this gene between racial groups. Research has shown up to 70% of Caucasian Americans may have this variant, compared with just 30% of African Americans.

🧽 Why Methylated Folate is easier for the body to absorb

It all comes back to the type of folate we’re consuming. As we mentioned, Methylated Folate is the most bioavailable form of folate, meaning your body doesn’t have to jump through tonnes of hoops to convert, absorb and access its benefit.

While research has shown that both folic acid and Methylated Folate do have pretty similar biologically active profiles, that’s only the case once folic acid has been activated and converted into Methylated Folate. But if you have the MTHFR gene variant, your body won’t be able to do that for you.

That’s what makes Methylated Folate a winner: it offers maximum benefits, no matter what gene variants are present for you.

Plus, research also shows that this type of folate offers other benefits, including:

👶 The importance of folate for our fertility health

All of this matters because folate plays a really important role in our health and development,  especially when we’re looking to start a family.

There is stacks of research that suggests getting enough folate both before and during pregnancy is key to lowering the risk of neonatal neural tube defects. That’s why you’ll probably hear your doctor and medical professionals recommend you increase your folate intake in the lead up to conceiving (as well as during the first stages of pregnancy).

So, why is folate such a superhero ingredient when we’re trying to conceive?

  • It supports healthy growth and neural tube development (this is the precursor to your baby’s brain)
  • It can assist with the development of your baby’s nervous system
  • It can also help to prevent birth defects such as Spina Bifida

And, how much folate do we need to be consuming? Usually, it’s recommended we have around 200 mcg per day (which we can easily hit by eating foods rich in folate). But before and during pregnancy, our recommended intake doubles to 400 mcg.

To ensure we’re reaching this daily target, a folate supplement or prenatal vitamin helps to take out the guesswork. And by using a prenatal with Methylated Folate, you’ll rest assured knowing your supplement is working effectively every time.

As the benefits of folate are key during the first stages of pregnancy, it’s recommended that women start taking a supplement rich in Methylated Folate between one and six months prior to conceiving (as well as for the first three months of pregnancy).  

So, next time you’re shopping around for a folate or prenatal vitamin, check the label and see what type of folate is inside. If it doesn’t contain the good stuff (a.k.a. Methylated Folate), you know to shop elsewhere. Because no one wants to worry about whether their supplement is really working or not when trying to conceive.