For years, doctors urged women to take folic acid if they planned to get pregnant. Then researchers discovered the vitamin helped reduce the risk of a heart attack. But now a new study shows folic acid may stimulate the growth of polyps in the colon.
Women often take folic acid to prevent birth defects. Other women, and men, take it to help reduce the level of homocysteine in the blood. Too much homocysteine can possibly lead to heart attacks.
"Getting a nice look at the colon here. It looks very healthy."
This gastroenterologist is checking a patient's colon during a procedure known as a colonoscopy.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that taking too much folic acid can cause polyps in the colon. Doctor John Baron of Dartmouth University School of Medicine in the United States says the presence of polyps raises the risk of cancer.
"Most colon polyps are benign and the reason to worry about them is simply that if you can remove them, you can prevent their developing into cancer."
The American study of one-thousand people was equally divided between those who took one milligram of folic acid and those who took a placebo.
Researchers were trying to determine if folic acid prevented polyps. Dr. John Baron says what researchers found surprised them.
"We found that folic acid did not decrease the risk of colon polyps. In fact, in some analysis we saw suggestions that folic acid might increase risk of those polyps."
Not only did the vitamin stimulate their growth, they also increased the risk of something else affecting men in the group. Again Dr. John Baron.
"We also saw an increase in the risk of prostate cancer in the folate group. This is a surprising finding. It's far from definitive, but it's something that should be looked into in the future."
Folic acid is a type of B vitamin. Combined with vitamins B-12 and C, it helps the body create and use protein. It also forms red blood cells and produces the genetic makeup, called DNA.
Folic acid is found in many of the foods we eat: for example, dark green leafy vegetables, wheat grains, beans and other legumes.
So with the exception of women who want to deliver a healthy baby, an extra supplement of folic acid may not be a good thing. At least until another study comes out.