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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

In the Wholesome Vein

A vitamin that isn't just for pregnant women


THERE MAY SOON BE a new watchword on food labels: folic acid enriched. The little-known member of the vitamin B group is gaining popularity among nutrition scientists as a supplement to reduce the risk of several life-threatening conditions. Once pigeon-holed as a pregnant woman's vitamin, folic acid is now also accepted as significant to the health of others.

Those who do not consume enough folate, a derivative of the vitamin, usually develop an excess of homocysteine, which is linked to coronary artery disease. High levels of homocysteine, an amino acid, damage the lining of blood vessels and increase the risk of blood clots, according to researchers at Harvard and Tufts universities. When clots form, blood flow is impeded and a stroke or heart attack may follow.

Besides shielding the body from vascular disease, folic acid also plays an important role in making new cells because it helps form DNA, the genetic material in the nucleus. Burn victims and cancer patients whose cells form more rapidly than healthy people's often use more folate than they take in and therefore require supplements.

The same goes for pregnant women. Folic acid is especially important during the first trimester, when the neural tube (which develops into the spinal cord) is formed in the fetus. Disorders of the neural tube cause spina bifida and anencephaly -- a condition in which the brain and spinal cord are partially formed.

Folate-deficient mothers are also more likely to have babies with a low birth weight or to deliver prematurely. Women planning to conceive should add the vitamin to their diets as high intake is important in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

Naturally occurring folic acid is found in abundance in foods such as avocado, asparagus, dried beans and liver. But it is still difficult to get the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 200 micrograms for adult men and 180 micrograms for women. Researchers believe this level is too low but have yet to convince the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board that sets the standard. Because of its proven effects on fetuses, the RDA for pregnant women is 400 micrograms.

In many developed countries, breads, cereals, flour and pastas are prepared with added folic acid. The vitamin can be purchased in pill form from health food stores and pharmacies, usually in a multi-vitamin formula. Its relative, Vitamin B12, is required for proper absorption and is usually included in these preparations. Signs of folate deficiency: diarrhea, weight-loss, anemia and a swollen, painful tongue.


IN BRIEF

COOL TO CALL CELLULAR phones are safe, say researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This declaration must come as a relief to phone junkies -- and manufacturers -- after British and American scientists queried the effects on users of "hot spots" (radio wave emissions registered on a computer-imaging program grading temperature changes to the brain). The Singaporeans' conclusion: a stroll under the sun would make the head warmer than using a mobile handset.

Still, the researchers do not seem entirely convinced of their findings. Dr. Lu Yilong, a lecturer at the university, advises users to refrain from touching either the ear or the head with the antenna -- just to be safe. And the word from the British Radiological Protection Board: "Prolonged mobile phone use is inadvisable."

-- By Catherine Shepherd


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