Folate and Cancer

Focus on Folate

One of the biggest breakthroughs in vitamin research was when researchers discovered that a woman with a deficiency in folate, a B vitamin, was at an increased risk of having a child with a neural tube defect such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In the past, it was unknown what caused these birth defects. Now it is understood that these neural tube defects occur in the very early stages of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. This is because spinal cord development is one of the very early stages of fetal development.

Over 30 years ago, researchers in the UK discovered that women who had borne children with spina bifida had lower-than-normal levels of certain vitamins, including folate. During the course of two large trial studies in which women were given either folate or a placebo it was discovered that those who had been given the placebo had a higher incidence of having a child with a neural tube defect. Inversely, the studies showed that the women who had been given adequate levels of folate were less likely to have a baby with a neural tube defect.

For folate to effectively lessen the risk of having a child with a neural tube defect, proper timing is essential. For optimal effectiveness, the vitamin must be taken regularly during the first few weeks following conception, with neural tube development occurs. The problem with this is that many women do not even know they are pregnant until after this stage passes by, making it difficult to time taking the requisite amount of folate. To ensure that enough folate is taken, women of childbearing age who could become pregnant should take folate regularly, either on its own or as part of a multivitamin.

Women of childbearing age who themselves were born with a neural tube defect need to take particular caution. These women are at a higher risk of having a child with a neural tube defect and they will need to take a much higher dose of folate prior to and during the early stages of pregnancy. Although most women can take an over-the-counter folic acid supplement, women who have spina bifida or another neural tube defect will need a prescription-strength supplement that can only be obtained by way of a doctor’s prescription.

It may be tempting to assume that adequate levels of folate can be achieved through a healthy diet, but this isn’t always an easy task. Women should take at least 400 micrograms daily, which can be extremely difficult to get from the average diet. Fortunately, the United States Food and Drug Administration has mandated that folic acid (a form of folate) be added to products such as breads, pasta, rice and other enriched products. Since the government has mandated the fortification of products with folate, there has been a dramatic decrease in the incidence of babies born with neural tube defects, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent.

Folate and cancer

Folate plays an important role in the building of DNA. These complex substances are what form the basis of our genetic blueprint, or one-of-a-kind (excepting identical twins) genetic makeup. Studies have shown that those who receive adequate amounts of folic acid from their diets and/or supplements for more than 15 years exhibit a lesser chance of getting colon cancer or breast cancer. Those who drink alcohol must be particularly careful, as alcohol in the system interferes with the proper metabolism of folate by the body. The protection offered by folate against breast cancer seems to be mitigated by those who have more than one alcoholic drink daily, moreover. A Swedish study supports these findings: That study indicates that the protection offered against breast cancer by folate is only applicable to those women who consume one alcoholic drink or less daily.

It is difficult to ascertain the true relationship between folate and certain kinds of cancer, however. It is a complicated relationship, particularly for those who are already at a higher risk for colon cancer. This is because those people who already have colorectal adenomas (polyps) are not further helped by the taking of folate. In fact, one study’s finding suggests that taking folate may actually increase the risk of those with polyps developing further growths that may be cancerous. However, it is very important to note that the participants in this study were taking a much higher than normal amount of folate than what is typically found in a standard multivitamin – about twice as much, in fact. This could be another instance wherein the timing of taking folate is the key. It may be that folate may prevent the development of polyps in those who don’t already have them, but that it also may speed up the development of polyp growth in those who already do have them.

The key in ascertaining any potential causal relationship between a vitamin supplement and cancer is understanding what cancer cells actually are. They are our own cells gone awry, not a foreign invader like a virus or bacteria. Cancer results from our own cells growing and dividing too rapidly. Because they are on “overdrive,” cancer cells require more nutrients than the rest of our cells do, which is why it seems that certain levels of various nutrients in the body can actually accelerate the growth of already-present cancer cells. This is why chemotherapy often contains nutrient antagonists (including folate antagonists) which are designed to combat the “feeding” of cancer cells by these nutrients.

As always, before taking any vitamin supplements for any reason, it is wise to consult your doctor. They will advise you what to take and how, and what to possibly avoid given your particular situation. Depending on your health needs and current situation, you may be instructed to bump up your intake of certain things or to avoid taking other things. The important thing is to get educated, to be open and honest with your health care professional and to be proactive about your health.

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