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Folate an important element for healthy sperm, says new study

Alex DeMarban

Sperm is a superstar when it comes to having healthy children, and folate -- a vitamin more commonly associated with female reproductive health -- is a superstar when it comes to having healthy sperm.

That's the gist of a new study that underscores the importance of male diets before conception and issues a warning for places like rural Alaska where food insecurity can be a problem. 

Using mice as their subjects, researchers with McGill University in Montreal recently reported that males lacking enough folate, or B9, were 30 percent more likely to produce offspring with birth defects compared to males who ate plenty of the vitamin.

The finding puts new renewed pressure on fathers-to-be, whose lifestyle choices when it comes to conceiving have long played second fiddle to their female counterparts.

“We have kind of ignored the sperm in looking at the whole picture because it's renewed very quickly,” said Leslie Shallcross, a registered dietician with the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service. “But if you don't have the right building blocks, nothing is going to be quite right.”

Folate, aka folic acid, plays a role in the creation of DNA, the genetic blueprint that controls heredity. Not enough in a man's diet before conception can cause “severe skeletal abnormalities,” said McGill researcher Dr. Romain Lambrot. That includes both “cranio-facial and spinal deformities,” he said on the university's web page.

Fortunately, you'll find folate in lots of foods, in part because federal regulators 15 years ago required that it be added to fortified breads, cereals, flours, pastas and other grain products. It's also naturally available in things like sunflower seeds, soy beans, peanuts, beans, black-eyed peas and oranges.

But such foods aren't always easily available in some areas. “People who live in the Canadian North or in other parts of the world where there is food insecurity may also be particularly at risk for folate deficiency,” said researcher Sarah Kimmins. “And we now know that this information will be passed on from the father to the embryo with consequences that may be quite serious.”

In scores of off-the-road villages in Alaska, food is costly and store shelves can be bare, especially in winter when blizzards, ice fog and other complications prevent air cargo deliveries.

The good news is there's plenty of folate on the tundra where free-range plants and animals abound.

Animal livers and kidneys are one rich source of the vitamin, said Gary Ferguson, director of wellness and prevention at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “Think caribou liver, seal liver, or other animal livers,” he said.

Plenty of tundra greens also contain folate, such as sour dock, called quagaq by the Inupiat. In summer, some Alaskans pluck the spinach-like leaves and boil them so they can be stored away in freezers, according to an ANTHC video. They're apparently quite tasty as frozen snacks.

“It energizes me,” says Point Hope elder Delia Stone in the short video. “It's sweet and has a little bit of tart to it.”

The leafy plant and its dock relatives, such as yellow dock, are found all over the state.

Another good source of Alaska-grown folate is beach lovage, a parsley-like plant that grows in coastal areas. ANTHC's “store outside your door” program, an effort to educate Alaskans about free-range foods, suggests turning it into a stir fry by mixing it with onions and seaweed, as well as olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Because beach lovage has a strong flavor like parsley, it's best used as a seasoning, rather than eaten on its own, said food author Laurie Constantino of Anchorage. 

Constantino's website gives the lowdown on how to prepare other good sources of folate-rich plants, such as stinging nettles, the goosetongue that grows in coastal areas, and fireweed that's found across the state. Cooked fireweed shoots, for example, are "similar to wild asparagus and can be used in soups, mixed cooked greens, or any dish that calls for cooking greens.”

Ferguson said folate isn't just important for reproductive health. 

“It's important to think of reproductive quality, but men don't often think of that,” he said. “They often think of being vital, and folate also makes you more vital and energized."

And if it's real vitality you want, get your folate from the wild -- there's more of it, and it's more readily absorbed by the body.

“If the only thing you have access to is fortified grains, get it in your body and eat well,” Ferguson said. “But if you can have locally-sourced food, its even better.” 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com