Vitamers: Cyanocobalamin; hydroxocobalamin; methylcobalamin; adenosylcobalamin
Physiologic role: Required for red blood cell formation, neurologic function, and DNA synthesis
Dietary sources: Only in animal products: fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and milk/dairy products. Not present in plant foods. Fortified cereals, nutritional yeast are sources for vegans/vegetarians.
Given their linked physiologic roles, vitamins B9 and B12 are frequently studied together. Folate and cobalamins play key roles in nucleic acid synthesis and amino acid metabolism, with their most clinically significant role in hematopoiesis. Vitamin B12 is also essential to normal neurologic function.2
The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends preconceptual folate supplementation of 0.4-0.8 mg/d in women of childbearing age to decrease the risk of fetal neural tube defects (grade A).21 This is supported by high-quality RCT evidence demonstrating a protective effect of daily folate supplementation in preventing neural tube defects.22 Folate supplementation’s effect on other fetal birth defects has been investigated, but no benefit has been demonstrated. While observational studies have suggested an inverse relationship with folate status and fetal autism spectrum disorder,23-25 the RCT data is mixed.26
A potential role for folate in cancer prevention has been extensively investigated. An expert panel of the National Toxicology Program (NTP) concluded that folate supplementation does not reduce cancer risk in people with adequate baseline folate status based on high-quality meta-analysis data.27,104 Conversely, long-term follow-up from RCTs demonstrated an increased risk of colorectal adenomas and cancers,28,29 leading the NTP panel to conclude there is sufficient concern for adverse effects of folate on cancer growth to justify further research.104
Given folate and vitamin B12’s homocysteine-reducing effects, it has been theorized that supplementation may protect from cardiovascular disease. However, despite extensive research, there remains no consistent patient-oriented outcomes data to support such a benefit.31,32,105
The evidence is mixed but generally has found no benefit of folate or vitamin B12 supplementation on cognitive function.18,33-35 Finally, RCT data has failed to demonstrate a reduction in fracture risk with supplementation.36,106
The takeaway: High-quality RCT evidence demonstrates a protective effect of preconceptual daily folate supplementation in preventing neural tube defects.22 The USPSTF recommends preconceptual folate supplementation of 0.4-0.8 mg/d in women of childbearing age to decrease the risk of fetal neural tube defects.
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