Taking prescription folic acid is associated with a significantly lower risk of suicide attempts, according to a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry. Experts say this could potentially offer a “major breakthrough” in suicide prevention.
The large-scale study, which looked at the data of 867,000 American adults over two years, showed a beneficial association between taking prescription folic acid — a B vitamin that helps the body make healthy new cells — and a 44% lower rate of suicide attempts and intentional self-harm. The research also found that every additional month of folic acid treatment was associated with a 5% reduction in suicidal event rates.
That’s significant, given that suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously contemplated suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.2 million attempted suicide.
What do experts think about the study?
Dr. Tatiana Falcone, a psychiatrist with Cleveland Clinic who was not involved in the study, tells Yahoo Life that the results are “really interesting.” She points out that the researchers ruled out possible factors that could “potentially confound the results” and still found that prescription folic acid made a difference. The researchers also compared two groups — one taking prescription folic acid and another taking cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12) as a control group — and found that the folic acid group experienced fewer suicide attempts.
Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, who was not involved in the study, tells Yahoo Life that results are “impressive.” However, she agrees with Falcone that more research is needed. Hafeez also says it’s important to point out that the folic acid used for the purpose of this study was in a prescription form — “not the OTC supplemental kind,” she says.
But if further studies confirm folic acid — which is inexpensive and widely available — as a suicide prevention tool, “it will be significant for the patients that have low folate levels associated with depression or suicidal thoughts,” says Falcone.
Hafeez agrees, saying: “It would not only be a major breakthrough in the treatment of depression but also medication-resistant depression.”
So how does folic acid help?
Some studies suggest there’s a link between low levels of folate — the natural form of the B vitamin — and depression. That may be because folate plays a role in forming serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) help treat depression and other mood disorders by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.
But, says Falcone, “Some percentage of patients with depression have abnormalities in the folate acid metabolism," which will impact their response to SSRI antidepressants.
"Treatment with folinic acid has been reported beneficial in patients with treatment-resistant depression who have decreased levels of folate … in their cerebrospinal fluid,” she adds.
Falcone adds that not waiting to get treatment for depression is crucial. “The longer that the depressive symptoms persist, the longer that the suicidal thoughts persist, the more likely that the patient will continue to worsen,” she says, explaining that this is why it’s “important to work collaboratively with your doctor to find the appropriate combination of treatments that is right for the patient.” She adds: “A combination of medication and therapy is the best.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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