How Folic Acid Revitalizes Memory
It’s scientifically indisputable that your brain cannot function at peak form if you are low in the B vitamin folic acid. Extensive research shows that a deficit of folic acid is a common, but often hidden, culprit in various minor and severe psychiatric problems, as well as strokes. If you are depressed, you may lack folic acid. If your carotid (neck) arteries, which carry blood and oxygen to your brain, clog up, a major reason could be a folic acid deficiency. Folic acid is also abnormally low in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Even perfectly healthy older people who lack folic acid score lower on tests of cognitive function, including memory.
More than twenty-five studies done between 1966 and 1990 show that psychiatric patients tend to be deficient in folic acid. In one study, fully 100 percent of older people diagnosed with vascular dementia and acute confusional state were deficient in folic acid. In other studies, 50 percent of those hospitalized with depression and 36 percent with schizophrenia had low blood levels of folic acid. This is compared with so-called healthy “control” subjects of whom only 3 to 8 percent showed folic acid deficiency.
BRAIN ALERT: Blood tests typically find that from one-fifth to one-half of people with psychiatric complaints have low folic acid! The figure soars to 80 to 90 percent in older people with psychological disorders.
MAJOR GLITCHES, MINOR GLITCHES
Skimping on folic acid also affects the brains of young people, and can produce subtle changes in mood and memory at all ages that are usually dismissed as just part of life’s ordinary ups and downs. German researchers at the University of Giessen discovered that young men who ate diets low in folic acid suffered poor emotional stability, poor concentration, unusual introversion, a lack of self-confidence, and low mood. Eight weeks of moderate doses of folic acid, found in multivitamin pills, brought dramatic improvement.
In one famous test, a scientist deliberately ate a folic acid-deficient diet for three months. He suffered sleeplessness, forgetfulness, and irritability. Amazingly, his symptoms vanished within two days after he started taking folic acid supplements.
Many people may have what Canadian researcher M.I. Botez at the University of Montreal describes as a “folicacid-deficiency syndrome,” characterized by fatigue, mild or moderate depression, minor neurological signs, and gastrointestinal disorders. When Dr. Botez gave a very high pharmacological daily dose of 15 milligrams of folic acid to 50 sufferers, their verbal performance and IQ scores improved. Fully 85 percent declared their mood improvement as “very good” or “good.”
In other studies schizophrenia patients have improved after taking folic acid. In a large, multicenter study of elderly depressed patients with mild to moderate dementia, Italian researchers achieved spectacular results with very high doses of methylfolate (a form of folic acid). It proved to be as effective in relieving symptoms of depression as the antidepressant drug trazodone. Among psychiatric patients, those receiving methylfolate were released from the hospital earlier, had less depression and better social functioning than those with low folic acid levels.
Although many people are still unaware of the psychiatric benefits of folic acid, the medical evidence leaves no doubt the vitamin is linked to minor mental glitches as well as serious depression, dementia, memory loss, schizophrenia, stroke and even autism and attention deficit disorder in children.
BRAIN ALERT: A scarcity of folic acid is perhaps our most serious and widespread vitamin deficiency.
- About 60 percent of middle-aged men are deficient in folic acid.
- The average American over age fifty takes in a mere 235 micrograms of folic acid daily.
- Almost 90 percent of Americans consume less than the 400 micrograms of folic acid daily needed to curb the brain toxin homocysteine.
DEPRESSED? THINK FOLIC ACID
Depression is the brain’s most common reaction to low folic acid. Dozens of reports link depression with low folic acid, according to Harvard professors Jonathan E. Alpert, M.D., and Maurizio Fava, M.D. In fact, they say depression is the most common neuropsychiatric sign of a folic acid deficiency. From 15 to 38 percent of adults diagnosed with depression have borderline low or deficient blood levels of folic acid. Low folic acid, surprisingly, is a better indicator of depression than low vitamin B12. Usually, the greater the folic acid deficit, the more severe the depression and the longer it lasts. One study of 44 people noted that even low-normal levels of folic acid predicted longer episodes of depression.
Another problem: If you’re taking antidepressant drugs, they don’t work as well if you are low in folic acid. This helps explain why some depressed persons are resistant to antidepressant drug therapy. Bringing folic acid up to par often helps relieve depression and makes standard antidepressants work better, concluded Drs. Alpert and Fava.
Adding even tiny amounts of folic acid can make a remarkable difference. In one double-blind study of seventy-five manic-depression patients on the drug lithium, only 200 micrograms of folic acid—the amount in three-quarters of a cup of cooked spinach—taken for a year dramatically elevated efficacy of the drug in reducing occurrence and duration of depression symptoms. And folic acid alone often brings astounding success. When Harvard’s Dr. Fava gave twenty elderly depressed patients a large pharmacological dose of folic acid for six weeks, alone without any other drug whatsoever, a whopping 81 percent of them got better.
It’s not totally clear how folic acid alleviates depression, but expert Dr. Simon Young at McGill University in Canada, says it’s known that folic acid deficiency depresses production of the brain’s natural antidepressant, serotonin. Sufficient folic acid, as expected, raises serotonin, relieving depression.
FOLIC ACID REVERSES MEMORY Loss
As you age, folic acid becomes especially critical. Older brains are particularly vulnerable to harm from low folic acid. In 1997 a team of Italian researchers headed by M. Fioravanti, Department of Psychiatric Science and Psychological Medicine at the University of Rome, reviewed over forty international scientific papers on folic acid, cognition, and aging published in the previous ten years. They concluded that low folic acid levels, just like low B12 levels, in older people with intellectual decline may stem from an intestinal problem in absorbing folic acid. Further, they confirmed that folic acid supplements restored memory in aging brains.
In one double-blind study, the Italian investigators tested folic acid in thirty elderly patients with low blood folic acid and mild to moderate memory loss within the past two years. Half got a high pharmacological dose (15 milligrams) of folic acid daily for two months, the other half got a placebo. Decidedly, those getting folic acid scored higher on memory tests; their attention span also increased.
Most striking, the worse the initial folic acid deficiency, the greater the memory improvement. Also remarkable: Memory improved in a mere sixty days, indicating that folic acid may contribute to an amazingly quick fix, considering memory had been on the downslide for two years.
This study, along with new research from Tufts University, suggests that numerous older people suffer from an undetected “subclinical” folic acid deficiency, despite the appearance of good nutrition, that harms their memory and robs them of their minds. Folic acid shortage is, of course, not the total explanation for age-related memory loss, but it is a hidden cause of some magnitude, which is all the more needless since it is so easily corrected by supplements. Don’t overlook folic acid deficiency as a thief of memory.
FOLIC ACID VS. STROKES
The big news is that folic acid helps protect aging brains from destructive vascular events, such as mini and major strokes as well as something called “white matter intensities”—brain abnormalities linked to cognitive decline. These smaller corrosions of the brain that go unnoticed are “really a much bigger problem than anyone has recognized,” says Tufts researcher Dr. Tucker. Enter folic acid as savior.
Scientists now say that a blood factor called homocysteine, an amino acid, is a major villain in mental decline, vascular dementia, and strokes. They also know that the best cure for high homocysteine is folic acid. In the absence of sufficient folic acid, this toxic homocysteine piles up wildly in the blood. The possible result: a narrowing and clogging of the carotid artery, as well as of the small cerebral blood vessels that carry oxygen and glucose to the brain. Vitamins B6 and B12 also help suppress homocysteine, but folic acid is by far the most powerful. Thus, at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day in a supplement is necessary to curtail homocysteine and cut your risk of stroke. (For more on the hazards of homocysteine to your brain, see page 307.)
FOLIC ACID WAVES OFF ALZHEIMER’S
High levels of folic acid may also help ward off the brain destruction in Alzheimer’s disease, according to exciting new findings by David Snowdon, M.D., at the University of Kentucky. In a large ongoing study of brain degeneration in elderly nuns, Dr. Snowdon previously detected higher levels of lycopene (from tomatoes) in the blood of sisters who functioned better mentally and physically in old age. Now Dr. Snowdon has discovered that the most massive damage from Alzheimer’s occurred in the brains of those with the lowest blood levels of folic acid.
An examination of thirty brains revealed that the most severe atrophy and abnormal configuration of plagues and tangles typical of advanced Alzheimer’s, strongly matched blood samples with the lowest concentrations of folic acid. The implication: That low folic acid predicts Alzheimer’s and high folic acid helps prevent it. How? The obvious possibility: by controlling homocysteine that otherwise may damage nerve cells directly or indirectly by provoking ministrokes and other injuries in cerebral vessels. It’s also possible that folic acid has some other brain-protecting abilities unrelated to homocysteine.
BRAIN ALERT: Only one in ten Americans gets the amount offolic acid needed to curb high homocysteine, according to Harvard researchers.
How MUCH TO TAKE?
Most experts say 400 micrograms of folic acid daily are sufficient to keep homocysteine in check. People with depression and memory problems may need more. Dr. Young suggests that a dose below 1,000 micrograms or 1 milligram per day is enough to bring the brain back into working order in most circumstances.
Caution: Folic acid supplements can interfere with anticonvulsant drugs, and may “mask” pernicious anemia. Be sure to take B12 along with folic acid.
BOTTOM LINE: Folic acid is not a trivial brain nutrient. A lack can contribute to a range of brain disturbances from minor mood changes, such as irritability, to thinking problems, forgetfulness, severe depression, and dementia. A modest dose of 400 micrograms to a maximum of 1000 micrograms daily can generally erase concern. Don’t take higher doses without medical supervision.