Researchers reinforce link between low folate levels and depression

By Dr. Phil Maffetone

A major health-news headline this week linked low folate levels with depression. Researchers with the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found an association of lower folate concentrations in the blood with major depression.

While the finding may be news to many, the association between folate and depression was reported last year in the July 2002 issue of the Maffetone Report. Numerous other studies also have shown that many people with depression also have low folate levels. In addition to predisposing patients to psychiatric disturbances, primarily depression and dementia, folate deficiencies also have been linked to functional depression and exacerbation of pre-existing depression.

Actually the brain's 200 billion cells have numerous nutritional requirements, including a number of vitamins and minerals, and most importantly, water. Any dietary inadequacy can potentially have a dramatic impact on brain function. Numerous neurological symptoms have been associated with a deficient diet, including aggression, learning disabilities, depression, hyperactivity and memory problems.

For this reason, individuals considering antidepressant medication may first wish to be screened for folate levels through a blood test for homocysteine, the best indicator of folate levels in the body. For depressed individuals who have low folate levels, adequate folate intake and utilization may be as effective as antidepressant drugs for treating mild, moderate and severe depression.

Folate is predominantly contained in green, leafy vegetables and fruits. In some cases, fruit, especially citrus, can be a better source than leafy vegetables. Synthetic folate, or folic acid, from most supplements may not be as effective or as well utilized in many people as folate obtained from real food sources. Foods that are high in folate include spinach, kale, broccoli, romaine lettuce, beets, Brussels sprouts, beans, some fruits such as citrus and cantaloupe, egg yolks, and beef or chicken liver.

Poor diet is the biggest contributor to folate deficiency, However, some medications such as lithium, birth-control pills, aspirin and some anticonvulsant medications may also contribute to the problem.

In cases in which diet alone cannot provide adequate folate, consult with a health-care professional about supplementation. Natural forms of folate supplements may be taken when necessary without risk of side effects. The newest form available, 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, won't mask B12 deficiency and is the most easily and efficiently absorbed.