Folate deficiency shown to increase risk of bowel cancer – signs to spot

Vitamins and minerals are vital when it comes to keeping our bodies as healthy as possible.

Eating a diet low in certain nutrients can have a noticeable effect, with some deficiencies causing debilitating symptoms.

However, it can be even more serious than this.

Research has suggested that being low in folate – also known as vitamin B9 – could in fact increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer, or colorectal cancer, refers to cancer that has started in the large bowel, which includes the colon and rectum.

READ MORE Four ‘essential signs’ when you go to the toilet that may indicate bowel cancer

It is among the most common types of cancer in the UK, leading to around 43,000 new diagnoses every year.

Folate deficiency and bowel cancer

According to the NHS, a folate deficiency can cause serious complications including bowel cancer.

“Research has shown that folate deficiency can increase your risk of some cancers, such as colon cancer,” it said.

One study, published in the Annals of Oncology in 2011, trialled the use of folate on more than 5,000 people – some with cancer, others with not over an eight year period.

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It said: “In the multivariable model, there was a significant decrease in the risk of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, oesophagus, upper aerodigestive tract, colorectum and kidney for the highest versus the lowest quartile of dietary folate intake.

“Our results not only confirm earlier findings of decreased risk of colorectal and oesophageal cancers with a high dietary folate intake but also suggest decreased risk of several other cancers.”

However, many studies also concur that further research into the relationship between folate and bowel cancer is needed.

A paper, published in the Annals of Medicine and Surgery in 2022, said: “Our article supports the idea that says: vitamin B9 has a dual-modulator effect on colorectal cancer carcinogenesis.

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“However, its role in preventing recurrence and improving survival rates remains unresolved with a possible potential role of folate metabolism genotype variations. Therefore, more evidence from clinical studies is needed.”

Symptoms of a folate deficiency

Whether or not there is a definitive link between folate and bowel cancer, being deficiency can cause a number of problems.

It can lead to anaemia – where the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells – resulting in:

  • Paleness
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness.

You might also experience:

  • A tender, red tongue
  • Mouth sores or mouth ulcers
  • Reduced sense of taste
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Problems with judgement
  • Lack of energy
  • Muscle weakness
  • Depression
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea.

Preventing a deficiency

It is possible to get plenty of folate, or folic acid, through diet.

Foods rich in folate include:

  • Peas, beans and legumes
  • Citrus fruits
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Liver
  • Seafood
  • Eggs and dairy
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fortified foods such as cereal and pasta.

If you experience symptoms of a folate deficiency it is worth speaking to your GP.

They might recommend supplements if changing your diet is not working.

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