Cancer: The ‘commonly used’ supplement associated with an overall higher risk of cancer

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Multivitamins are used by many to top up any vitamins or minerals they may be lacking in their diet. As the name suggests, multivitamins contain a range of vitamins and minerals. Although there is a strong case for taking multivitamins, especially if you cannot get enough via your diet, supplementing this way can present hidden health risks.

That’s the conclusion of a study published last year in The Journal of Nutrition.

The research linked greater use of multivitamins to an overall higher risk of certain cancers.

“Multivitamins are among the most commonly used supplements in the United States, but their effectiveness in preventing cancer remains unclear,” the study researchers wrote.

To plug this gap in knowledge, they prospectively examined the association between multivitamin use and risks of overall and site-specific cancer in a large, well-characterised cohort to ascertain “potential preventive or harmful relationships”.

They examined 489,640 participants ages 50–71 in the NIH–American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Diet and Health Study who were enrolled from 1995 to 1998.

The NIH AARP Diet and Health Study focuses on how lifestyle and behaviour influences one’s likelihood of developing cancer.

The researchers linked to 11 state cancer registries in order to identify incident cancers.

They adjusted for potential confounders, including age, BMI, smoking, physical activity, the Healthy Eating Index 2015 score, and use of single-vitamin/multivitamin supplements.

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What did the researchers find out?

A slightly higher overall cancer risk was observed in men (but not women) who consumed one or more multivitamins daily compared to nonusers.

The latter reflected higher risks for prostate cancer and leukaemia.

Taking more than one multivitamin daily was also strongly positively associated with the risk of oropharyngeal cancer in women.

By contrast, daily multivitamin use was inversely associated with the colon cancer risk in both sexes.

The researchers concluded: “We found little evidence to support a cancer-preventive role for multivitamin use, with the exception of colon cancer, in both sexes in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.

“In addition, slightly higher risks of overall, prostate, and lung cancer, as well as leukaemia, were observed for greater multivitamin use in men, with a higher oropharyngeal cancer risk in women.”

What Cancer Research UK says

“There is no reliable evidence that any dietary supplement can help to prevent cancer.”

The charity says some research has found that taking certain supplements could increase the risk of some cancers developing.

An organisation called The Cochrane Collaboration carries out systematic reviews.

These are overviews of all the research into a specific issue. The reviews look at the published results of all the trials that have investigated a certain treatment in a particular situation. They pull all that information together and draw conclusions.

A Cochrane review published in 2018 looked at an essential mineral called selenium.

They wanted to see if selenium supplements could reduce cancer risk. After looking at all the information they found that selenium did not reduce cancer risk.

Some of the trials reported a higher incidence of high grade prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes in people who took selenium supplements.

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