U.S. researchers have found that a lack of folate in the body could lead to liver damage, followed by liver cancer. But could a simple, natural nutrient really help stave off this terrible disease?
Liver cancer is one of the more deadly forms of the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), there will be 19,160 people diagnosed with liver or bile duct cancer this year. The NCI also estimates that 16,780 people with the disease will die in 2007. Statistically, those aren’t good odds. I’m not trying to scare you here. I’m just emphasizing how important prevention is when it comes to liver cancer.
Folate is a natural B vitamin that comes from foods such as beef liver, spinach, oranges, dried peas, and peanuts. When created artificially and made into supplements or added into foods, it’s called folic acid. Folate is extremely important in the production and upkeep of new cells. That’s why it’s touted as an absolutely necessary nutrient for pregnant women. In all people, it’s been found to play an essential role in preventing anemia, and metabolizing and controlling homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is an amino acid found in your body’s bloodstream. High levels of this substance have been linked to many diseases, including heart disease and hearing problems. Because of the health benefits of folate, the FDA now requires folic acid to be added to grain products, like bread, cereal, and pasta. However, other countries don’t have this requirement. That could be why liver cance! r is more common in eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa.
Animal studies have shown a link between folate levels, and liver damage and cancer. So this latest study aimed to take this theory to the next level. That means humans. The researchers followed 415 people in China for four years. The study participants were chosen based on their high risk for liver cancer. These people were at a greater risk, because they tested positive for hepatitis B surface antigen. This means that they had a hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. This infection has been found to be one culprit behind the development of liver cancer. Hepatitis also causes damage to the liver, which can be minimal or severe.
The researchers tested the levels of folate in the participants’ blood at the beginning of the study. To follow the progression of liver damage, the researchers tested for alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and HBV DNA twice a year. When a liver is healthy, there will be low levels of the enzyme ALT. Obviously, higher levels of HBV DNA mean that the infection is getting worse. During the course of the study, 20 people were diagnosed with liver cancer.
After four years, the scientists checked to see how folate factored into all this. First they found that the participants with more folate in their blood had lower levels of ALT. Remember, that’s an indication of a healthy liver. They discovered something else: the people with the highest levels of the B vitamin were 67% less likely to develop liver cancer.
Great results! As usual, more studies are needed to support the claim that folate could prevent liver cancer. In the meantime, talk to your doctor about whether or not you need to supplement with folic acid. He or she can tell you how much to take. And don’t forget to enjoy your folate- rich foods! Spinach and chickpea salad, anyone?