Folic Acid and Cancer Risk
Does this essential nutrient have a dark side? Understanding the two faces of folate
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“A few months ago, I developed an ectopic pregnancy. My doctor told me not to take any more folic acid, a nutrient used by rapidly dividing cells. They wanted to make sure the fertilized egg wouldn't grow any more. But that got me wondering: If folic acid is used by rapidly dividing cells, such as in an embryo, would it also make you more susceptible to developing cancer? We are still trying to have a baby but now I’m not sure whether it’s safe to resume taking my folic acid supplements. Or am I linking things together in a way that doesn’t make sense?”
Actually, Carrie, you’re thinking very logically—and you’ve zeroed in on a complex and interesting aspect of nutrition. Before I delve into all of that, let me first say that I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some bumps on the road to starting your family. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ectopic pregnancy, it refers to a fertilized egg which implants itself somewhere other than in the uterus—usually the fallopian tubes. When this happens, sadly, the pregnancy is doomed. The egg will not survive—and doctors usually need to move quickly to remove the rapidly-dividing cells before they endanger the life of the mother.
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Secondly, although the information I’ll share in this podcast may suggest an answer to your question about whether you should or shouldn’t resume taking your folic acid supplements, I want you to promise to ask your doctor’s opinion on that—because he or she is much better able to advise you based on the particulars of your situation.
And now, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between folic acid, pregnancy, and cancer.
The Good News: Folic Acid Prevents Birth Defects
Women who are planning to get pregnant are strongly advised to take folic acid, which is crucial to the baby’s early development—in particular, to the proper formation of the baby’s spinal cord and brain. In fact, it’s so critical that the government has mandated that certain commonly eaten foods—namely, breads, flours, and other grain-based products—be fortified with folic acid to ensure that all women of child-bearing years are covered, whether or not they are planning to have a baby. This program has been remarkably successful in lowering the rates of certain neurological birth defects, such as spinal bifida.