Folic acid is not only a safeguard against spina bifida and other birth defects in babies – it may also prevent heart disease and strokes, two of Northern Ireland's biggest killers.
Research at the University of Ulster has shown that folic acid and three other related B-vitamins can prevent the accumulation of a high blood level of homocysteine, a new risk factor for heart disease and strokes.
The risk of high homocysteine is similar to the risk of high cholesterol - but the good news is that it is much easier to lower homocysteine levels through increased intake of folic acid.
As well as folic acid, vitamin B-12 and vitamin B-6 can help to prevent a build up of homocysteine.
Professor Helene McNulty, Professor of Human Nutrition and Dietetics at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster, said: "As the folic acid story unfolds, it is becoming clear that its importance goes beyond its major role for mothers-to-be and that, in fact, it is not just a woman's nutrient.
"New and emerging roles for this important vitamin include its probable role in protecting against heart disease and strokes by preventing the accumulation of homocysteine."
Professor McNulty's research confirmed that a fourth B-vitamin – riboflavin – can also play an important role in protecting against heart disease and strokes.
Around 12% of people have a particular genetic make-up which predisposes them to high homocysteine levels. Riboflavin, which is found in dairy foods like milk and yoghurt, prevents the build up of homocysteine in people with this genetic make-up.
Professor McNulty said: "The evidence appears to suggest that if riboflavin intake is good the genetic predisposition towards elevated homocysteine may be overcome. This is a classic example of what scientists call a gene-nutrient interaction".
"To protect against elevated homocysteine in all individuals, including those with the genetic predisposition, a good intake of all four B-vitamins is recommended."
This research was carried out with funding from the Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke Association and the EU.
The above story is based on materials provided by University Of Ulster. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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