May 17, 2012 — High doses of dietary supplements containing beta-carotene, selenium, and folic acid may increase the risk of many types of cancer, according to new research in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Many people believe that supplements can help treat cancer, and many supplements are marketed with anti-cancer claims, but there is little to no scientific evidence to support the anti-cancer benefits of most supplements. Now, there is growing evidence that dietary supplements can actually increase the risk of cancer.
If you are a cancer patient considering taking a dietary supplement, talk to your doctor first — no matter how harmless the supplement seems.
Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that high levels of antioxidant supplements may increase the risk of cancer for some patients. The risk of lung cancer was higher in smokers who took high doses of beta-carotene, for example.
The lead researcher and author of the study, Dr. Tim Byers, had this to say about the findings: “We have a window into less than half of the biology of what these nutrients are doing.” He said, “We say generalized things about them, calling them an antioxidant or an essential mineral, but true biology turns out to be more complex than that. The effects of these supplements are certainly now limited to the label we give them. And, as we’ve seen, sometimes the unintended effects include increased cancer risk.”
The unintended effects may include less-effective cancer treatments. For example, another study found that supplements with Vitamin C could lessen the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment by 30-70%.
By law, dietary supplement manufacturers are not allowed to claim that their product can treat any health condition. Products that treat health conditions are drugs, and they must undergo rigorous testing to prove they are safe and effective. Dietary supplements may be sold without undergoing even preliminary testing.
Dr. Byers suggests that regulatory agencies could do a better job of providing guidance to the public about the benefits and risks of dietary supplements. Although many people take supplements to reduce the risk of cancer, or to treat symptoms of cancer itself, there is little information to guide this treatment.
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