Getting the daily nutrition we need can be challenging for many reasons (both in and out of our control). Even the most vigilant health enthusiasts can have nutritional gaps in their diets. And when you add a cancer diagnosis to the mix, it’s even more important to identify the missing pieces that can support our overall well-being, recovery and longevity.
That’s where quality supplements come in. The right kinds of supplements are like targeted wellness support, designed to address those gaps and cover the bases so we can thrive.
Supplements are an important part of my own wellness practice, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the supplements industry.
- Can you trust the manufacturer?
- Are the ingredients high quality?
- Are all the ingredients plant-based?
- Do they include enough of the active ingredient to actually support your health?
The questions multiply for the cancer patients in our community (myself included!).
- Should cancer patients take immune support supplements?
- Are there any interactions with cancer treatments to be concerned about?
- Can supplements actually help you fight cancer?
To provide some much-needed clarity, I’ve invited my brilliant friend, Lizabeth Gold, to join us today.
She’s a Registered Dietitian at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment.
She’ll share the risks we need to know about, then detail 5 ways supplements can help cancer patients (and 6 types you should explore).
I’ll let Liz share her brilliance with us now.
Please note that any medical information we share is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Certain health conditions can negatively interact with other medications you may be on. Be sure to consult a medical professional before starting a new regimen.
Can Dietary Supplements Help Fight Cancer?
There’s some controversy around supplements for cancer patients.
After so many years of research and clinical trials, it’s hard to believe there isn’t more of a consensus in the healthcare community regarding supplements and the role they play in immune support for patients.
Opinions still vary widely among doctors with many conventional oncologists discouraging supplements altogether. Their main concern is whether certain supplements will interfere with treatments or radiation. Others are just unsure what to recommend, so they take an ulta-conservative approach.
It’s important to remember that many of these doctors are experts in their particular specialty for a reason—they focus all of their attention on knowing and understanding the disease they treat and, of course, that’s a good thing! Keeping up with the latest developments in the ever-progressing world of cancer is a huge challenge all by itself.
I can understand why it might not be a priority for them to try and sift through all of the latest research from the supplement world. Admittedly, conflicting information does exist and new information from clinical trials is continuously changing what we know about supplements and their role in immune support for cancer patients.
The FDA Doesn’t Regulate Nutritional Supplements
The FDA doesn’t regulate nutritional supplements in the same way it regulates prescription drugs, which is not surprising since the supplements industry is so vast. The FDA will pull a product off the market if it is found to be misbranded or adulterated, but it might be after those contaminants have already harmed someone.
Secondly, some manufacturers make unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of their supplements so consumers don’t always get what they pay for. This may be especially true when wondering whether a supplement can actually help cancer patients.
Dietary Supplements to Avoid Completely
There are certain supplements that cancer patients should avoid altogether.
- Beta Carotene Supplements: High doses of beta carotene supplements may put you at a higher risk of developing lung cancer. Once thought to aid in cancer prevention, beta carotene and other vitamins such as Vitamin E can increase your risk of cancer (more specifically stomach, colon, and esophageal cancer). Oddly enough, some studies show that vitamin E can decrease cancer risk in lung cancers.
- St. John’s Wort: This is good example of one supplement that all cancer patients should avoid as it interferes with several common drugs and can produce serious side effects.
- Green Tea: Although not definitive, a study done in 2009 in mice found that green tea may interfere with Velcade, a drug used to treat Multiple Myeloma and Mantle Cell Lymphoma.
Research is sometimes sparse regarding interactions between supplements and some of the newer cancer drugs, making it difficult to evaluate safety. In these cases, the decision to take a supplement or not requires a deep understanding of the mechanism of action of both the drug and the supplement. Sometimes it might also be necessary to weigh the benefits (and quality of life) against potential risk.
It is critical that every patient work with someone they trust to create a supplement regimen tailored specifically for their individual needs as they fight cancer.
These recommendations should take into consideration their particular disease, type of therapy, medications, side effects, stage of cancer, tumor histology, nutritional deficiencies, labs, and overall goals. A well-rounded regimen should include agents that help decrease inflammation, provide immune support, display anti-cancer properties, and address side effects and nutritional deficiencies. Let’s unpack each of those in greater depth now.
5 Ways Supplements Can Help Cancer Patients
How can some dietary supplements help patients with their cancer treatment?
Benefit 1: Reduce Inflammation
Chronic and unresolved inflammation is linked to cancer growth and progression. Plus, chemotherapy and radiation can make inflammation worse. Boswellia, Scutellaria, omega-3 fatty acids from algae oil, curcumin, and alpha lipoic acid can all help cancer patients control inflammation.
Benefit 2: Nutrient Support
Nutritional deficiencies are common among cancer patients due to various side effects such as nausea, pain and loss of appetite. Vitamin D deficiency is found in about 75% of cancer patients and is linked to advanced forms of cancer. Supplementation of vitamins and minerals can improve quality of life, deter weight loss, and help prevent treatment delays.
Zinc, iron, Vitamin C, potassium, CoQ10, magnesium, B vitamins, and Vitamin D supplements often appear at low levels in patients with advanced cancer and should be tested. A high-quality multivitamin may be all you need to get to optimal nutrient levels.
Benefit 3: Anti-Cancer Effects
Although highly debated, real data does exist regarding various compounds and their impact on the cellular pathways that contribute to cancer growth and progression. One good example, Indole 3-carbinol (the same compound found in cruciferous vegetables), is a known regulator of estrogen metabolism and signaling pathways in breast cancer.
Curcumin, resveratrol, quercetin, green tea, and melatonin, among others, have been extensively studied for their modulatory effects that can support your body as you fight cancer.
Curcumin has been studied extensively and found that it can slow tumor growth by stopping cancer cells from multiplying (studied in breast, colon, and prostate cancer).
Some studies show that Omega 3s (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid more commonly known as DHA) such as those found in fish oil may prevent cancer and heart disease, but that is largely inconclusive. Plus, we usually avoid oily fish in a vegan diet.
Benefit 4: Immune Support
Breakdowns within our very complicated immune system play a big role in cancer initiation and proliferation. Our immune system is constantly working to fight cancer, and experts believe that if we didn’t have this capability, every person would end up with cancer of some form.
Advancements in immunotherapy drugs are significantly improving outcomes in deadly cancers like non-small cell lung cancer, kidney, and some melanomas. Research suggests that immune support supplements like medicinal mushrooms, beta-glucans, Vitamin D, zinc, antioxidants, flavonoids, resveratrol, and fiber may help strengthen several immune pathways.
Benefit 5: Reduce Side Effects
Many of the supplements mentioned above can also be used to reduce side effects like fatigue, brain fog, neuropathy, diarrhea, constipation, insomnia, and general malaise. They can help cancer patients enjoy a higher quality of life while undergoing treatment.
Can Supplements Reduce Cancer Risk?
The best “tool” for cancer prevention is a healthy—and I would argue plant-based—lifestyle. While some supplements provide health benefits, they can’t definitively be touted as tools for cancer prevention (and we established that some are even harmful). Preventing cancer by staying in good health is your best option.
Vitamins and mineral tablets can’t replace a healthy lifestyle. You can lower your cancer risk by eating a healthy plant-based diet full of colorful fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
Yes, Supplements Can Help Cancer Patients
Altogether, the research demonstrates that supplements deserve a place in cancer support. But again, regimens should be customized and carefully monitored by someone with experience.
Never take supplements that claim to “prevent cancer” or “cure cancer” and be skeptical of anecdotal evidence where one or two people make unsubstantiated claims about a product.
Randomized, controlled trials in humans are the most reliable evidence, but even these types of studies can be conducted improperly. Before taking any supplement, you should always review all supplements with your entire medical team to check for safety.
For more ideas to help manage side effects, check out Kris’s Cancer Therapies Toolkit. It’s full of natural remedies to help bring you comfort and relief today.
6 Types of Cancer-Fighting Supplements
What are some specific vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts, and other supplements you can explore? How can they support you?
Type 1: Vitamin D
This is one vitamin supported by a lot of research. A large number of population-based studies and randomized, controlled trials found Vitamin D is able to slow or control the growth of various types of cancer cells by stimulating cancer cell death, promoting cellular differentiation, and reducing the supply of blood vessels to tumors.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in regulating and controlling inflammation, and providing immune support. Cancer patients are often noted to have lower circulating levels of Vitamin D in their blood. Because many drugs can damage bone health_and a lack of vitamin D lowers your body’s ability to absorb calcium—this is one of the most important supplements in your regimen.
Since Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and can build up over time, it’s important to get your levels tested regularly to make sure your dose is just right for you. Most people can’t get enough vitamin D through sun exposure and need to consider taking a vitamin daily.
Type 2: Multivitamins
A healthy, whole food, plant-based healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do to take care of yourself during your cancer journey. But certain conditions or drugs can cause loss of appetite and taste changes, along with nausea and pain, making it difficult to get every nutrient necessary for optimal health. Choosing a good multivitamin is key to filling in those gaps.
Look for a multivitamin that is potent, pure and third-party tested for toxins and heavy metals. If someone is iron or copper deficient, it is best to take these minerals separately in only the amount necessary to get back to optimal levels. As well, look for one that contains B vitamins in their “active” form* and in reasonable amounts. Try to avoid folic acid, a form of folate, unless specifically prescribed by your doctor.
- *Active form of B9 (Folate): 5-Methyltetrahydrafolate
- *Active forms of B12: Methylcobalamin or Adenosylcobalamin
Type 3: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A potent anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fatty acids provide additional nutritional support and help cancer patients address the side effects from chemotherapy. Various randomized, controlled trials found that patients taking supplemental fatty acids experienced less peripheral neuropathy, stomatitis, and diarrhea.
There are currently several clinical trials to assess how omega-3s can address various other cancer-associated complications such as cachexia (muscle wasting), pain, and depression.
Type 4: Turkey Tail and Reishi Mushrooms
Turkey Tail (Coriolus) and Reishi (Ganoderma) mushrooms are known for their immune-boosting properties. Because medicinal mushrooms are traditionally used in the practice of Eastern medicine, the most comprehensive studies come from China or Japan. The National Institute of Health conducted a clinical trial among breast cancer patients and found that Turkey Tail “increased natural killer cells and other cancer-fighting cells in the immune system” to reduce breast cancer growth.
Both Reishi mushrooms and Polysaccharide K (PSK), the active compound in Turkey Tail, were studied in various trials of breast, gastric, lung, and colorectal cancer and found to have several benefits such as improved immune function and overall well-being, as well as a reduction in tumor size and a higher survival rate. That means these supplements can both offer you immune support and help your body fight cancer.
Mushrooms and mushroom supplements, if sourced properly and safely, are generally very well tolerated with no apparent side effects. Other mushrooms like Shiitake, Maitake, and Cordyceps are also beneficial, although the research is less robust.
Type 5: Green Tea
Green tea extract contains the polyphenol/catechin EGCG and is considered a powerful antioxidant and chemopreventative agent. Significant research has documented the suppressive effects of EGCG in certain cancers including breast, colon, lung and prostate through the regulation of cancer signaling pathways.
Some doctors fear antioxidants will interfere with the efficacy of certain cancer treatments or radiation and recommend avoiding green tea extracts completely along with all other antioxidant supplements like Vitamin C and CoQ10.
In reality, there’s not a lot of evidence proving that antioxidants interfere with treatments at all. If your doctor doesn’t like the idea of green tea during treatment, she might be open to allowing it on the days in between cycles, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Type 6: L-Glutamine
This is perhaps the best supplement available for gastrointestinal side effects and neuropathy.
An important building block for protein in the body, L-Glutamine is the major fuel source for cells that line the gastrointestinal tract and are necessary for optimal immune function. It can be helpful for several side effects caused by chemotherapy such as mucositis, gastrointestinal toxicity, muscle wasting, neuropathy, and diarrhea.
A small study conducted in 2010 suggested that tumor cells exhibit “glutamine addiction” and that taking glutamine in excess may contribute to cancer growth and progression, but follow-up studies found conflicting results. Until further research is conducted, it is recommended that patients take L-Glutamine only on the days right before, during, and after treatment just to be cautious.
Evaluating Dietary Supplements for Cancer Support
Make sure you carefully research any dietary supplement you take during your cancer treatment journey.
- Are you able to easily contact the company for information about their product?
- Look for good manufacturing processes and the symbols below.
- Buy organic and vegan when you can. Make sure to check the label and ingredient list for allergens like soy or nuts and unhealthy fillers like maltodextrin.
- Be especially careful with herbals and imported supplements. Only buy reputable brands.
- Buy from companies that are transparent about where they source their ingredients. If they don’t tell you where it comes from, it might mean they have something to hide.
- Check for expiration dates. Supplements are less effective when their date is passed.
- Never buy a supplement that promises to “cure cancer” or claims to be a “breakthrough” or “miracle”.
- Avoid complex mixtures of ingredients as these are generally of low value and have potential to cause more harm.
- Always incorporate supplements slowly and watch for negative side effects.
Healing Foods and Herbal Supplements for Fighting Cancer
Certain foods can also help fight cancer. Here are some to consider:
Fresh Ginger Supplements
A miracle worker when it comes to nausea, ginger can be added to smoothies to soothe the tummy and aid in digestion. A great recipe to try is 1 cup of rice milk, 1 cup of frozen peaches and a chunk of fresh ginger.
That being said, check with a health professional before adding ginger into your diet as it can interact with certain medications, like blood thinners.
Garlic contains a biologically active compound called allicin and its protective effects include anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Note that garlic is also a known blood thinner and should be avoided in large amounts when undergoing surgery or taking blood-thinning medications.
Fermented foods like miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut, plus root vegetables like jicama, chicory root, onions, carrots, and sunchokes help to diversify the gut microbiome and provide immune support.
Broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and bok choy all contain sulforaphanes and glucosinolates believed to have strong antioxidant properties.
Get Support from a Community
Thank you, dear Liz!
I’m so grateful she took time out of her busy schedule to share her knowledge with us. One of the many reasons why I love and trust Liz is because her wisdom not only comes from her training, but from the real-world work she works with patients and a world-renowned medical team each and every day. For more of her practical guidance, make sure to check out the Block Center website.
I hope this article helps you feel better equipped to navigate this journey.
Your turn: What foods or supplements have been helpful on your healing journey?
Peace & support,