Folic Acid and Cancer

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Drugs and Health, Supplements and Health

Does Folic Acid Increase Cancer Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

folic acid and cancerYou’ve seen the headlines. “Folic Acid Supplements May Increase Colon Cancer Risk in People Over 50” and “Folic Acid Supplements May Increase Prostate Cancer Risk in Men”. And I’ve seen articles telling people over 50 that they should take their multivitamin tablets every other day to avoid getting too much folic acid.

I’ve even heard of doctors telling their patients to avoid any supplements containing folic acid. So what’s the truth?  Is there a cause and effect relationship between folic acid and cancer?

Why Do People Say Folic Acid Increases Colon Cancer Risk?

Perhaps a bit of historical perspective is in order. A number of population studies had suggested that high intakes of folic acid might protect against cancer, especially colon cancer, so several placebo controlled clinical studies were initiated to test that hypothesis. Those studies had mixed results, with some suggesting that folic acid might be protective and others suggesting that it had no effect. None of those studies suggested that folic acid supplementation increased the risk of any kind of cancer.

In 1998 mandatory folic acid fortification of grain products was introduced. In addition, the number of Americans taking supplements with folic has increased dramatically in recent years. As a consequence total intake of folates (folic acid from fortified foods and supplements plus folates naturally found in foods) has increased significantly. By one estimate blood levels of folates have increased 2.5-fold between 1994 (before fortification) and 2000 (after fortification).

So it was just natural to ask if this increase in folate intake might have unintended consequences. And one clinical study seemed to suggest that it might (JAMA, 297: 2351-2359, 2007)

That study looked at colorectal adenomas and reported high folate intake was associated with an increased risk of more advanced adenomas. [It is important to note that adenomas are benign tumors. They are thought to be precursors to colorectal cancer but they are not actually cancerous].

Some experts immediately started warning about getting too much folic acid in the diet – with some going so far as to warn that people over 50 should only take a multivitamin every other day.

And several papers were published speculating on how differences between the way that folic acid and the other folates were utilized by the body could cause folic acid to increase the risk of colorectal cancer while naturally occurring folates decreased the risk.

Let me put this into perspective. Any good scientist knows not to trust a single clinical study. Individual clinical studies can provide misleading results. Sometimes it is possible to pinpoint the cause. For example, the study may have been poorly designed, may have included a non-representative population group, or the statistical analysis may have been incorrect. But, sometimes we never know why an individual clinical study came to the wrong conclusion.

folic acid and colon cancerThat is why good scientists generally say that more studies are needed and base their recommendation on the preponderance of many studies rather than a single study.

The problem was that all of this hype and hypothesizing about folic acid increasing the risk of colon cancer was based on a single study, and that study didn’t actually look at colorectal cancer. A Norwegian study four years later found no evidence for increased colorectal cancer at folic acid intakes of up to 800 ug/day (AJCN, 94: 1053-1062, 2011) – but it was largely ignored.

The background is similar for the claims that folic acid may increase prostate cancer risk. When a small meta-analysis that included some, but not all, published clinical studies suggested an increased risk of prostate cancer, some experts went as far as to suggest that men should completely avoid supplements with folic acid.

The problem is that even meta-analyses can be misleading if they only examine a small sub-set of clinical studies because they can be unduly influenced by a single misleading clinical study.

Does Folic Acid Increase Colon Cancer Risk?

Should We Avoid Supplemental Folate?

The American Cancer Society decided to resolve the uncertainty about folic acid intake and colon cancer risk once and for all (V.L. Stevens et al, Gastroenterology, 141: 98-105, 2011). They designed the study to answer two very important questions:

1) Has the increased folate intake by Americans over the past several years actually increased their risk for colorectal cancer?

2) Does the chemical form (folic acid versus folate) influence its effect on colorectal cancer risk?

And this study had two very important firsts:

1) This was the very first study to investigate the association between folate intake and colorectal cancer entirely in the post-fortification period.

2) This was also the very first study to separate out the effects of folate and folic acid on colorectal cancer risk.

And it was a very large study. They followed 43,512 men and 56,011 women aged 50-74 for 8 years between 1999 and 2007.

Folate intakes from food ranged from 175 ug/day to 354 ug/day while folic acid intakes from food fortification, supplements and multivitamins ranged from 71 ug/day to 660 ug/day. Total folate (both naturally occurring folates and folic acid) intakes ranged from 246 ug/day to over 1014 ug/day.

When they analyzed the data they found that high intakes of neither folic acid nor natural folates were associated with any increased risk of colorectal cancer. In fact, they found high intake of total folates was associated with a significant decreased risk of colorectal cancer.

Does Folic Acid Increase Cancer Risk?

folates help prevent cancerWhat about prostate cancer and other types of cancer? Could folic acid increase the risk of other cancers? To resolve this issue once and for all, a group from Oxford University (Clarke et al, The Lancet, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)62001-7) did a meta-analysis of every study published through 2010 that compared folic acid supplementation to a placebo, lasted at least 1 year, included at least 500 people and recorded cancer incidence – some 13 studies with over 50,000 participants.

The results were clear cut. As for folic acid and cancer, supplementation did not increase the overall cancer risk, and when the incidence of individual cancers was analyzed, folic acid supplementation did not increase the risk of developing colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer or any other site-specific cancer.

To put this in perspective the average dose of folic acid used in these clinical studies was 2 mg/day, which is 5 times the RDA and 5 times the dose in most supplements. And one of the clinical trials used 40 mg/day, which is 100 times the dose in most supplements.

 

The Bottom Line

Forget the warnings and the hype. You can be confident that folic acid does not increase the risk of colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, or any other kind of cancer.

  • The American Cancer Society recently performed a very large clinical study looking at the effect of folic acid intake from supplements and folate intake from foods on colon cancer risk. That study found that high intakes of neither folic acid nor natural folates were associated with any increased risk of colorectal cancer. And, they found high intake of total folates was associated with a significant decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • The authors of that study concluded: “The findings of this study add to the epidemiological evidence that high folate intake reduces colorectal cancer risk.” “More importantly, no increased risk of colorectal cancer was found, suggesting that the high levels of this vitamin consumed by significant numbers of Americans should not lead to higher incidence rates of this cancer in the population.”
  • A second meta-analysis of every clinical study looking at folic acid intake and cancer risk through 2010. The results of that study were clear cut. Folic acid supplementation did not increase the overall cancer risk, and when the incidence of individual cancers was analyzed, folic acid supplementation did not increase the risk of developing colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer or any other site-specific cancer

Like any good scientist I am aware that future studies could change our understanding, but for now I am confident in saying that there is no credible evidence that folic acid supplementation increases your risk of any kind of cancer. If the science changes, I will be the first to let you know.

But it will be really interesting to see how long it takes all those web sites, blogs and so-called “experts” to acknowledge that the science has changed and they should stop issuing false warnings about folic acid supplementation.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Omega-3 Benefits: Lower High Blood Pressure

Posted July 16, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Does the FDA Say About Omega-3 Benefit Claims?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

 

Among omega-3 benefits is lower high blood pressure.  That claim can be made according to the FDA. 

lower high blood pressureHeart Disease is still the number 1 cause of death in this country. And, while deaths from heart disease have been declining in recent years, deaths due to high blood pressure have been increasing.  That is concerning because:

High blood pressure is a killer! It can kill you by causing heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, kidney failure and much more.

High blood pressure is a serial killer. It doesn’t just kill a few people. It kills lots of people. The American Heart Association estimates that high blood pressure directly or indirectly caused 410,000 deaths in 2014. That is almost 1 person every second and represents a 41% increase from 2000. It’s because high blood pressure is not a rare disease.

  • 32% of Americans have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, (defined as a systolic blood pressure of 140 mm Hg or more or a diastolic blood pressure of 90 mm Hg or more).
  • Another 33% of Americans have prehypertension (systolic blood pressure of 120-139 mm Hg or diastolic blood pressure of 80-89 mm Hg).

That’s over 65% of Americans with abnormal blood pressure!

High blood pressure is a silent killer. That’s because it is a very insidious disease that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Systolic blood pressure increases 0.6 mm Hg/year for most adults over 50. By age 75 or above 76-80% of American adults will have high blood pressure.  Even worse, many people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, so they don’t even know that their blood pressure is elevated. For them the first symptom of high blood pressure is often sudden death.

Blood pressure medications can harm your quality of life. Blood pressure medications save lives. However, like most drugs, blood pressure medications have a plethora of side effects – including weakness, dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, heartburn, depression, heart palpitations, and even memory loss. The many side effects associated with blood pressure medications lead to poor compliance, which is probably why only 46% of patients with high blood pressure are adequately controlled.

You do have natural options. By now you are probably wondering whether there are natural approaches for controlling your blood pressure that are both effective and lack side effects. The answer is a resounding YES! I’ll outline a holistic natural approach for keeping your blood pressure under control in a minute but let me start with the FDAs recent approval of what they call “qualified claims” that omega-3s lower blood pressure.

 

What Does the FDA Say About Omega-3 Benefits?

omega-3 benefitsIn my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths” I talk about the “dark side” of the supplement industry. There are far too many companies who try to dupe the public by making outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about their products.

Only the FDA stands between us and those unscrupulous companies, and they take their role very seriously. That is why it is big news whenever the FDA allows companies to make health claims about their products.

Even then, the FDA is very cautious. They allow what they call “qualified” health claims. Basically, that means they are saying there is enough evidence that the health claim is probably true, but not enough evidence to say it is proven.

Of course, if you understand the scientific method, you realize there will always be some studies on both sides of every issue. That is why the only health claims the FDA allows are qualified health claims.

With that background in mind, let’s look at the qualified health claims the FDA allows for omega-3 benefits.

  • Since 2004 the FDA has allowed the qualified claim “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
  • A few weeks ago, they added five qualified health claims about omega-3s and blood pressure. The 5 claims are very similar, so I will only list two below for the sake of brevity.
  • “Consuming EPA and DHA combined may reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, a risk factor for CHD (coronary heart disease).”
  • Consuming EPA and DHA combined may reduce the risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) by lowering blood pressure.
  • Of course, they add the usual wording about the evidence being inconsistent and inconclusive.

 

Omega-3 Benefits?

measure omega-3 benefits levelWe’ve known for some time that omega-3 fatty acids help lower blood pressure, but two recent studies were instrumental in convincing the FDA to allow these qualified health claims. These studies have highlighted just how strong the effect of omega-3s on lowering blood pressure is.

The first study was a meta-analysis of 70 randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials of long chain omega-3 (EPA + DHA) supplementation and blood pressure (Miller et al, American Journal of Hypertension, 27: 885-896, 2014 ).

This study showed:

  • In the group with normal blood pressure at the beginning of the study EPA + DHA supplementation decreased systolic blood pressure by 1.25 mm Hg.
  • Given that systolic blood pressure rises an average of 0.6 mm Hg/year in adults over 50, the authors estimated that omega-3 supplementation alone would delay the onset of age-related high blood pressure by 2 years.
  • In the group with elevated blood pressure not taking medication at the beginning of the study, EPA + DHA supplementation decreased systolic blood pressure by an impressive 4.51 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 3.05 mm Hg.
  • The authors noted that this decrease in systolic blood pressure could “prevent an individual from requiring medication [with all its side effects] to control their hypertension” or decrease the amount of medication required.

However, the doses of omega-3s used in these studies ranged from 1 to over 4 grams/day (mean dose = 3.8 grams/day). That sparked a second study (Minihane et al, Journal of Nutrition, 146: 516-523, 2016) to see whether lower levels of omega-3s might be equally effective. This study was an 8-week double-blind, placebo-controlled study comparing the effects of 0.7 or 1.8 grams of EPA + DHA per day (versus an 8:2 ratio of palm and soybean oil as a placebo) on blood pressure.

This study showed:

  • In the group with normal blood pressure at the beginning of the study, EPA + DHA supplementation caused no significant decrease in blood pressure. This could be due to the smaller number of subjects or the lower doses of EPA + DHA used in this study.
  • In the group with elevated blood pressure not taking medication at the beginning of the study, EPA + DHA supplementation decreased systolic blood pressure by 5 mm Hg and, the effect was essentially identical at 0.7 grams/day and 1.8 grams/day.
  • The authors concluded “Our data suggest that increased EPA + DHA intakes of only 0.7 grams/day may be an effective strategy for blood pressure control.”

 

A Holistic Approach to Lower High Blood Pressure

holistic approach to lower high blood pressureThe FDA’s allowed claims about omega-3s are good news indeed, but that’s not the only natural approach that lowers blood pressure. You have lots of other arrows in your quiver. For example:

  • The DASH diet (A diet that has lots of fresh fruits and vegetables; includes whole grains, low fat dairy, poultry, fish, beans, nuts and oils; and is low in sugar and red meats) reduces systolic blood pressure by 5-6 mm Hg. [Low fat, low carb and Mediterranean diets also lower blood pressure, but not by as much as the DASH diet].
  • Reducing sodium by about 1,150 mg/day reduces systolic blood pressure by 3-4 mm Hg.
  • Reducing excess weight by 5% reduces systolic blood pressure by 3 points.
  • Doing at least 40 minutes of aerobic exercise 3-4 times/week reduces systolic blood pressure by 2-5 mm Hg.
  • Nitrates, whether derived from fresh fruits and vegetables or from supplements probably also reduce blood pressure, but we don’t yet know by how much.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ve probably figured out that a holistic lifestyle that included at least 0.7 grams/day of long chain omega-3s (EPA + DHA) plus the other omega-3 benefits in the list above could reduce your systolic blood pressure by a whopping 18-22 mm Hg.  What

That’s significant because, the CDC estimates that reducing high systolic blood pressure by only 12-13 mm Hg could reduce your risk of:

  • Stroke by 37%.
  • Coronary heart disease by 21%.
  • Death from cardiovascular disease by 25%.
  • Death from all causes by 13%.

 

A Word of Caution

While holistic approaches have the potential to keep your blood pressure under control without the side effects of medications, it is important not to blindly rely on holistic approaches alone. There are also genetic and environmental risk factors involved in determining blood pressure. You could be doing everything right and still have high blood pressure. Plus, you need to remember that high blood pressure is a silent killer that often doesn’t have any detectable symptoms prior to that first heart attack or stroke.

My recommendations are:

  • Monitor your blood pressure on a regular basis.
  • If your blood pressure starts to become elevated, consult with your doctor about starting with natural approaches to bring your blood pressure back under control. Doctors are fully aware of the side effects of blood pressure medications, and most doctors are happy to encourage you to try natural approaches first.
  • Continue to monitor blood pressure as directed by your doctor. If natural approaches are insufficient to bring your blood pressure under control, they will prescribe the lowest dose of blood pressure medication possible to get your blood pressure where it needs to be.
  • Don’t stop making holistic lifestyle choices to reduce blood pressure just because you are on medication. The more you do to keep your blood pressure under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle, the less medication your doctor will need to use (That means fewer side effects).

 

The Bottom Line

Heart Disease is still the number 1 cause of death in this country. And, while deaths from heart disease have been declining in recent years, deaths due to high blood pressure have been increasing. That is why anything we can do lower blood pressure naturally is important. What does the FDA say about omega-3s and blood pressure?

  • Since 2004 the FDA has allowed the qualified claim “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
  • A few weeks ago, they added qualified health claims about omega-3s and blood pressure. For example, they now allow the following claims.
  • “Consuming EPA and DHA combined may reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, a risk factor for CHD (coronary heart disease).”
  • Consuming EPA and DHA combined may reduce the risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) by lowering blood pressure.

For more information on the studies that convinced the FDA to allow claims about omega-3s and blood pressure and for a discussion of holistic natural approaches for lowering blood pressure, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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