A new study says folic acid lowers levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that’s been linked to coronary artery disease. The new research, reported in the September 2000 Journal of the American College of Cardiology, was led by Dr. Lawrence Title, an interventional cardiologist at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Other studies have looked at the effects of folic acid, a form of vitamin B, but in groups of patients with different medical histories, such as people with high cholesterol levels, or those with no evidence of heart disease or still others with normal levels of homocysteine. While homocysteine can increase the risk of artery disease, Title says it’s “just one of the many players, along with cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Title’s study looked at folic acid’s effects on 75 patients with coronary artery disease and slightly elevated levels of homocysteine. The patients were randomly divided into three groups: one took folic acid, another took folic acid plus the antioxidant vitamins C and E, and the third took placebos. At the start of the experiment and after four months of treatment, the researchers measured homocysteine levels and used ultrasound to determine how well their impaired brachial arteries — located in the arms — had expanded to handle a temporary increase in blood flow.
The patients who took folic acid alone showed an 11 percent decrease in homocysteine levels compared to the placebo group, and their brachial arteries had expanded by 2 percent, says Title. The antioxidant vitamins had no effect. Title says the researchers had expected more than an 11 percent decrease but were heartened by the improvements to the brachial arteries.
“The most impressive finding was that we had a very significant increase in the function of the lining of the artery,” he says. “What is striking is that that degree of improvement is similar to what’s been shown with other drugs, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins and also heart medications called ACE inhibitors.”
How it works: Folic acid is a B vitamin that’s essential for proper nerve function in the brain; a Harvard Medical School study showed that 38 percent of depressed women are deficient in it. “In many cases, the only sign of a folic acid deficiency is a feeling of sadness,” says R. Murali Krishna, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma.
What you can do: In addition to taking a vitamin supplement, eat folic acid-rich foods so you’ll get a good balance of B vitamins, suggests Mary F. Morrison, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia.
One cup of beans or peas, plus four to five servings of fruits and green leafy vegetables daily, is often enough to correct the deficiency.