This week is National Folic Acid Awareness Week. So what is it about this B vitamin that makes it worthy of national recognition?
Most of us know that folic acid, called folate in its natural form, is important for women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy. The National Council on Folic Acid reports that folic acid can prevent 50-70 percent of some serious birth defects of the brain and spine (neural tube defects), such as spina bifida.
But what else can folic acid do for us? Hadassah Hilewitz, ND, naturopathic oncology provider at our hospital in Philadelphia, lists some functions of folic acid:
- Helps cells grow and divide
- Builds and repairs DNA, and prevents DNA damage
- Silences overactive genes through DNA methylation, which suppresses the expression of viral and other harmful genes
- Helps produce new red blood cells and prevent anemia
You can get folic acid through food. Good sources include a diet of dark leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and beans as well as fortified cereals, grains, breads and pastas. You can also take a daily supplement or multivitamin, if needed.
A diet deficient in folic acid, Hilewitz says, can lead to instability of the DNA, which can affect the genes involved in regulating the cell cycle and how genes are turned on and off, both of which may lead to the formation and progression of tumors. In fact, some research suggests lower levels of folic acid may be linked to higher rates of certain cancers such as colorectal, cervical, head and neck, and hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer.
At the same time, other research suggests too much folic acid may support tumor growth in certain cancers such as prostate cancers, although more recent studies have disputed this link. High doses of folic acid may also interfere with some chemotherapy drugs, such as methotrexate, and exacerbate the side effects of certain drugs, such as Xeloda®.
“The consensus seems to be that folic acid plays an important role in preventing cancer but adding folic acid supplementation may not always be beneficial once a person has cancer. Because this vitamin is essential for many functions in the body, supplementation should be approached on a case-by-case basis.” says Hilewitz.
Hilewitz emphasizes taking high doses of folic acid through supplements should only be done under the supervision of a clinical professional, as it may not always be appropriate, and different people may need different forms of supplementation. It can also potentially mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, if you are deficient in both.
Learn about the role of dietary supplements and other naturopathic therapies during cancer treatment.