Food sensitivities and the problem with folic acid

I have been SUPER impressed with the thorough labeling of potential food allergens on menus in most of Europe. Here it seems that it was mandated in 2014 that restaurants have to label any unpackaged food being sold. There are no such measures in the US. As a lactose-intolerant vampire who gets severe gas pain with dairy and garlic (among other things) I would wholeheartedly support a similar measure. UPDATE: There does seem to be some movement in the US toward proper allergy labeling!

I want to elaborate a bit more here about food sensitivities, including the lesser known sensitivity to folic acid. If you have ever been pregnant and had some prenatal care, you are well aware of the recommendation to take folic acid during pregnancy. The idea is that by taking a folic acid supplement, we can prevent spina bifida (a neural/spinal tube defect) in babies. Spina bifida formation happens during the first trimester of pregnancy, so the most important time to have adequate levels of folate in your body is during pre-conception and through the first trimester. Notice I said folate, which is a naturally occurring nutrient in our food. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which is added to commercial wheat flour in the US and some other countries as well as to most prenatal supplements. Since adding folic acid to commercial wheat flour, the spina bifida rates in the US have dropped significantly. However, this means that the entire US population, pregnant or not, is consuming this synthetic additive and loads of us cannot properly process it.

As many as 40% of people living in the US, have a genetic mutation of an enzyme called MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) that limits their ability to metabolize synthetic folic acid into folate. A slightly smaller percentage of people have what is called a homozygous MTHFR mutation, which makes the reaction to excess folic acid in the body more pronounced because your metabolism of the stuff is even slower than most. This is the kind I have. And if you are of Central/South American descent, your risk of having this homozygous mutation is higher.

I avoid eating commercial wheat flour products when I’m at home or else I end up waking up multiple times in the night with inexplicable anxiety. Most countries in Europe do not add folic acid to wheat flour. As you might imagine, I’ve been on a bit of a bread/croissant/cake bender here in Europe. Even wellness practitioners do not eat the healthiest things all the time. Any healer who presents only their healthiest habits is setting a perfectionistic and unrealistic example for their clients and followers.

The MTHFR mutation does not have much research behind what specific symptoms or issues you might expect to have. It has been proposed that several mental health concerns can result from the mutation, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic pain and fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Several other issues have also been considered like recurrent miscarriage, blood clots and colon cancer. And it makes sense that fetal spina bifida risk increases for a pregnant person with the mutation as your body will not be able to convert folic acid effectively into folate to reduce your risk of spina bifida formation.

You can fairly easily and inexpensively get MTHFR testing if you think you may have it or just would like to know your status. Prenatal vitamins with L-methylfolate instead of folic acid tend to be much more expensive, but ultimately it is worth paying a bit extra for them if you can afford it. The first trimester is the most critical time to prevent spina bifida, so you will not have to take them beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy if you do not want to. After 12 weeks, you could try a vitamin that either includes folate or at least excludes folic acid. Some people have differing opinions on whether or not multivitamin supplements are helpful. I am still not convinced one way or another on them but I do think that we often do not get enough vitamins and minerals in our diet for lots of reasons that I won’t get into here.

I know I have mostly focused on folic acid and the MTHFR mutation here. I will probably write a shorter post about a few of the things that I found have worked personally and professionally for digestive issues and other food sensitivities. If you are just starting your journey into figuring out what your sensitivities might be or feeling stuck and confused along the way, here are a few ideas for you:

- Consider doing an elimination diet to see what you might be sensitive to. It is challenging but you can just try one allergen group at a time if eliminating loads of things at once is too overwhelming.

- Dairy and wheat are a few of the most common food sensitivities, explore there first then move on to less common sensitivities. An important note here about going gluten free: xanthan gum is a common additive to gluten-free products. It also may cause a reaction, commonly gas.

- Try a low FODMAPS diet for a little while, especially if you have IBS or just generally sensitive digestion. Things like beans, cruciferous vegetables like kale, and garlic and onions can cause a lot of trouble for a lot of people, this diet reduces exposure to these things.

- I cannot remember at the moment if sugar alcohols are included in the low FODMAPS diet, but they are also important to consider. When fruit like peaches or strawberries start to become over ripe, they produce sugar alcohols. Eating a piece of fruit that has started to smell a little like alcohol can really upset your digestion. Beyond that, companies that produce packaged food have started marketing their “low sugar” products when really they have just added sugar alcohols instead. Be sure to check the label.

- Nightshades like eggplant, tomato, potato and pepper are also a common sensitivity

- Tree nut (e.g. peanut) allergies are also very common, and you may just have a mild case that you have not noticed

Any food or food additive sensitivity can cause a super wide variety of reactions like rashes, migraines, chronic pain and/or fatigue, mood changes, insomnia and many others. Your mood can also affect your ability to digest properly, so you may react more strongly to food you are sensitive to when you are feeling depressed or anxious and less so when you are feeling better. Beyond that, your body’s reaction to something in food may include anxiety and depression. Sheesh, this shit is complex! Even for someone like me who works in health and wellness.

So take it slow, do NOT try to take on too much at once. Believe me, I’ve tried that. Would not recommend. Taking care of your emotional/psycho-spiritual self is of supreme importance as you invest time and energy figuring out food sensitivities. Dietary changes can be HUGE emotional triggers, even more so if you have experienced disordered eating like so many of us have. Our eating habits often took root in childhood are comfortable safety blankets through adulthood. If you completely shred your safety blanket, you may end up causing yourself a lot of distress. Best to just fold it up and keep it by your kitchen table for when you need it.

Should you need help with any of these types of wellness issues, send me a message and we can schedule a time for a free consult about what you want to achieve and how I can help.

Lauren is a registered nurse and herbal consultant specializing in depression and anxiety during and after pregnancy. She supports people with pre or postpartum depression and anxiety through one on one coaching, classes, and online resources to create a support system through the use of herbs, trauma release work, and other body based techniques.