Folate, calcium, and probiotics provide three-pronged protection.

When New York Yankees' slugger Darryl Strawberry was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to sit out the 1998 World Series, much attention was drawn to this serious, but rarely talked about disease. Surprisingly, colon (or colorectal) cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States.

Risk factors include: a family history of colon cancer, having colon polyps, eating a high-fat/low-fiber diet, high alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity. In addition to reducing avoidable risk factors, recent research has shown that certain nutrients may help to protect against colon cancer, too.

Multivitamins with folate
A recent study on almost 90,000 women suggests that long-term use of a multivitamin containing folic acid (the B vitamin most known for its ability to help prevent neural tube defects in newborns) may reduce one's risk of developing colon cancer.

For 14 years, the study's participants provided researchers with updated assessments of their diets, including supplementation with multivitamins containing folic acid. The researchers found that the risk of developing colon cancer in women who took a multivitamin containing folic acid for 15 years or more was "markedly lower" than in those women who took such a supplement for shorter periods of time. The researchers concluded, "Folate from dietary sources alone was related to a modest reduction in risk for colon cancer, and the benefit of long-term multivitamin [containing folic acid] use was present across all levels of dietary intakes."

Research suggests that probiotics may have a protective effect against colon cancer in humans. At the "International Scientific Symposium: Immunity and Probiotics," Joseph J. Rafter, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, discussed his research and views on the role of probiotics in colon cancer prevention. Rafter reported that there is a great deal of indirect evidence, based on laboratory studies, which indicates that probiotics may inhibit colon cancer. As to why probiotics may help to inhibit colon cancer, Rafter said, "The intestinal flora are known to play a role in colon cancer and, therefore, it's reasonable to assume that the probiotic bacteria, which influence the bacteria in the colon, may influence the progression of the tumor of the colon. And most of the data indicate that it is a positive effect." In his "takehome message," Rafter said, "In view of the fact that there is a considerable amount of indirect evidence that strains of probiotic bacteria protect against colon cancer, and also in view of the other, many more well-documented health benefits of probiotic bacteria, I would recommend that products containing probiotics be consumed as just one component of a healthy, well-balanced diet." Common, rich sources of probiotics include yogurt and supplements.

In addition to helping to prevent osteoporosis, recent research shows that calcium may help to prevent colon cancer, too.

A study conducted on 70 people with a history of colon polyps found that increasing daily calcium intake by up to 1,200 mg via low-fat dairy products reduced the number of colon cells indicating early signs of cancer. It is important to note, however, that the authors of an editorial in the same issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, in which this study was published, point out that, at this time, the association between dietary calcium and a decreased risk of colon cancer is weak, compared with more consistent, stronger associations between, say, a high intake of fruits and vegetables and a lowered risk of colon cancer. They caution, that, for older men, high-calcium diets may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer.

Ahnen, D.J., M.D., and Byers, T., M.D., M.P.H. "Proliferation happens," JAMA 280(12):10741079, Sept. 23/30, 1998.

Giovannucci, E., et al. "Multivitamin use, folate, and colon cancer in women in the Nurses' Health Study," Ann Intern Med 129(7):517-24, Oct. 1, 1998.

Holt, Peter R., M.D., et al. "Modulation of abnormal colonic epithelial cell proliferation and differentiation by low-fat dairy foods," JAMA 280(12):1074-1079, Sept. 23/30, 1998.

Rafter, J, J. "The role of probiotic bacteria in colon cancer prevention," International Scientific Symposium: Immunity and Probiotics, Oct. 29, 1998.


By Patricia Andersen-Parrado

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