Women who frequently drink alcohol should be vigilant about getting enough of the B vitamin folate, a large U.S. study suggests.
Harvard researchers found that compared with abstainers, women who had at least two drinks a day faced a higher overall risk of developing a major disease, most notably, cancer. But this increased risk, which was most apparent in women younger than 60, was largely reduced if folate intake was adequate or high.
This means that getting enough folate may be especially important for relatively younger women who regularly drink. Their findings are based on data from a long-running health study of nearly 122,000 female nurses in the U.S.
Folate and its synthetic form, folic acid, are key to the production and maintenance of new cells and to healthy DNA function. It's believed that the B vitamin helps prevent changes to DNA that may lead to cancer, and low folate levels in the body may contribute to cardiovascular disease. Folate occurs naturally in foods such as leafy greens like spinach, beans and peas, and liver. Many cereals and grain products are fortified with folic acid.
Alcohol is known to interfere with normal folate absorption and metabolism. And a number of studies have suggested the combination of regular drinking and low folate intake may increase the risk of disease. For example, some research has tied relatively heavy drinking to an increased breast cancer risk, but only among women with low folate intake. In addition, while moderate drinking is thought to be heart-healthy, there is evidence that much of this benefit may be lost if folate intake is inadequate.
Researchers found that women who drank the most and were in the lowest folate-intake group had a 36% higher risk of any major chronic disease, compared with abstainers who got at least the recommended level of folate, 400 micrograms per day. These heaviest drinkers reported a daily alcohol intake of more than 30 grams, roughly equivalent more than two drinks. The heightened risk of major disease for these women was reduced among those who got near-recommended levels of folate.
When it came to cancer alone, the heaviest drinkers needed more folate (at least 600 micrograms a day) to get the "maximal" reduction in risk, especially for breast and colon cancers. The risk for either of those two cancers was 76% higher among the heaviest drinkers with the lowest folate intake, compared with abstainers getting the recommended folate level. Consuming 600 or more micrograms of folate a day pared this increased risk down to 23%.
As for cardiovascular disease, the expected benefit of moderate drinking was clear when women's folate intake was at least near adequate, but disappeared when intake of the vitamin was low.
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