Can taking vitamins prevent lung cancer?

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Epidemiological studies suggest that people who eat foods rich in beta carotene and vitamin A are less likely to develop many types of cancer, especially lung cancer. But when researchers tested beta carotene supplements in smokers, they found that people who took the supplements were more likely to develop lung cancer. In one study, people who took 30 mg of beta carotene plus 25,000 international units (IU) of vitamin A were 46 percent more likely to die of lung cancer than those taking a placebo. Based on these findings, experts now advise people—especially former and current smokers—not to take beta carotene supplements.

The concept that vitamins may have an effect on the risk of cancer in general and lung cancer in particular comes from studies that have shown that cancer rates are lower in people who eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables which contain naturally occurring vitamins. Most of these vitamins function as antioxidants, which help to prevent some of the damage that normally occurs in the cells of the body over time. On this basis, studies have been performed or are ongoing to see whether or not higher levels of these vitamins, through the use of specific supplements, may be able to reduce lung cancer risk.

  • Beta-carotene — While early studies suggested that a diet high in beta-carotene may be associated with a reduced risk of lung cancer, recent studies indicate that the use of beta-carotene supplements may actually increase the risk of lung cancer in heavy smokers. Beta-carotene supplements should not be used for lung cancer prevention.
  • Vitamin A — Several small studies have noted a link between the use of Vitamin A supplements (also known as retinoids) and a lower risk of colon and breast cancer in women, but these results have not been confirmed in clinical trials and no studies have been conducted on Vitamin A and lung cancer. It has been suggested that the death rate may be increased in current smokers taking Vitamin A supplements. As a result, it is strongly recommend that Vitamin A supplements not be used for lung cancer prevention.
  • Vitamin C — There have been no large, well-conducted studies looking at the effect of Vitamin C supplements on cancer risk.
  • Vitamin E — Vitamin E is not recommended for lung cancer prevention, as studies have shown no difference in the risk of lung cancer among those taking vitamin E compared with those not taking it.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.