Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health

Folate and related B vitamins in health and disease

    Folate and related B vitamins in health and disease

    Conclusive evidence has been available for over 15 years that folic acid given to mothers before conception and in early pregnancy prevents spina bifida and related birth defects collectively known as neural tube defects (NTDs).

    Since then, other potential roles for folate have emerged to the extent that it should no longer be perceived by consumers as "a woman’s nutrient". Evidence suggests that an optimal status of folate and the related B-vitamins (vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and riboflavin) may protect against cardiovascular disease (particularly stroke) and certain cancers, and may have other important roles in maintaining cognitive function and bone health. These beneficial effects of folate and related B-vitamins may be mediated by their ability to lower blood homocysteine, itself a recognized risk factor for heart disease and stroke, both major health concerns in industrialised countries throughout the world.

    Studies in the Folate and B-vitamin group in NICHE are focused on the roles of these important nutrients in disease prevention, the best means to achieve an "optimal" status and the interplay between the dietary and genetic factors involved. It is known for example that around 1-in-10 healthy people have a genetic variant ("TT genotype") of the MTHFR gene, which predisposes them to high blood homocysteine concentrations. Such people are estimated to be at 14-21% greater risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those without this factor. For these individuals, dietary supplementation with folic acid and B-vitamins is especially recommended.

    The latest evidence from our research has indicated that riboflavin supplementation can significantly lower blood pressure in patients with the TT genotype, over and above the therapeutic effect of routine anti-hypertensive (blood pressure-lowering) drugs. Contact: Professor H McNulty: h.mcnulty@ulster.ac.uk