Supplements warning: Two popular vitamin supplements that may increase cancer risk by 21%

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It goes without saying that the body needs a healthy dose of vitamins to function. Most people should get all the nutrients they need by having a varied and balanced diet, although some people may need to take extra supplements. However, vitamin supplementation does not always bring benefits. In fact, it may present grave risks for certain people.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Two supplements were shown to increase the risk of cancer: B12 and folic acid.

Folic acid is the man-made version of the vitamin folate (also known as vitamin B9). Like B12, folic acid helps the body make healthy red blood cells.

However, heart patients in Norway who took folic acid and vitamin B12 supplements were found to have a slightly increased risk for cancer and death from all causes, compared to heart patients who did not take the supplements.

Study researcher Marta Ebbing, MD, of Norway’s Haukeland University Hospital and colleagues analysed data from two studies that included almost 7,000 heart patients treated with B vitamin supplements or placebo for an average of three and one-half years between 1998 and 2005.

They originally set out to determine if taking vitamin B supplements improved cardiovascular outcomes, which it didn’t do.

The patients were followed for an average of three years after supplementation ended, during which time 341 patients who took folic acid and B12 (10 percent) and 288 patients who did not (8.4 percent) were diagnosed with cancer.

Folic acid and B12 supplementation was associated with a 21 percent increased risk for cancer, a 38 percent increased risk for dying from the disease, and an 18 percent increase in deaths from all causes.

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An increase in lung cancer incidence among the folic acid and B12-treated patients mainly accounted for this finding.

Seventy-five (32 percent) of the 236 cancer-related deaths among the study participants were due to lung cancer, and the cancer incidence among the study group was 25 percent higher than in the population of Norway as a whole.

Roughly 70 percent of all the patients in the study were either current or former smokers, including more than 90 percent of those who developed lung cancer.

In a statement issued in response to the study at the time of publication, a spokesman for the supplement-industry trade association Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) noted that the lung cancer finding has not been seen in other studies.

“The real headline of this study should be that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer – the study found that a total of 94 percent of the subjects who developed lung cancer were either current or former smokers,” CRN Vice President for Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Andrew Shao, PhD, said in a news release.

According to the NHS, folic acid can also affect the way other medicines work.

“Do not take your folic acid within two hours before or after taking indigestion remedies (antacids containing aluminium or magnesium), as they may stop folic acid being properly absorbed,” warns the health body.

Tell your doctor if you’re taking these medicines before you start taking folic acid:

  • Methotrexate, a medicine used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis and some types of cancer
  • Phenytoin, fosphenytoin, phenobarbital or primidone, medicines used to treat epilepsy
  • Fluorouracil, capecitabine, raltitrexed or tegafur, medicines used to treat some types of cancer
  • Antibiotics, medicines used to treat or prevent bacterial infection
  • Medicines or alternative remedies that contain zinc (including throat lozenges and cold remedies)
  • Sulfasalazine, a medicine used to treat the inflammatory bowel conditions ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
  • Cholestyramine, a medicine used to reduce cholesterol.

Cancer – signs to spot

It’s important to be aware of any new or worrying symptoms that could be cancerous.

According to the NHS, you’re advised to speak to a GP if you’ve noticed these changes and it’s lasted for three weeks or more:

  • Tummy discomfort
  • Blood in your poo
  • Diarrhoea or constipation for no obvious reason
  • A feeling of not having fully emptied your bowels after going to the toilet
  • Pain in your stomach or back passage (anus).

“Although it’s unlikely to be cancer, it’s important to speak to a GP so they can investigate. Finding cancer early means it’s easier to treat,” notes the health body.

“If your GP suspects cancer, they’ll refer you to a specialist – usually within two weeks.”

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