Nutrition and Cancer Supplements, Minerals & Herbs 

Summary: Many people take supplements each day, and many are unaware of the benefits and dangers that that are associated with these indigestible medications. Whether your supplements are vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, or herbal, you should always check in with your medical care team to ensure that you are not putting yourself at risk. Supplements can be beneficial when helping to increase overall body nutrient absorption but can also pose a heightened risk for those cancer patients going through treatment. Learn the difference between the types of supplements and what to watch for when you begin taking them.

Many cancer patients often begin wondering about extra supplements and vitamin intake while going through treatment or immediately after. Some begin taking massive amounts of “natural” herbs and minerals to halt or reverse their cancer or illness. Others take these supplements because they want to actively participate in their treatment, improve their overall nutrition, or to reduce fatigue while hopefully increasing energy. In a recent study done by the American Cancer Society, nearly seventy-seven percent of people diagnosed with cancer were also taking multiple multivitamin or mineral supplements per day (ACS). There are many pros and cons about supplements, vitamins and minerals, which is why there is no exact or general method of taking or prescribing.

If you are considering beginning a supplement or vitamin regimen, you should consult with your doctors or medical care team before you begin taking anything new. Cancer patients are also very susceptible to having medication interactions, or easily overloading the body with too many medications and minerals to properly function, which is why communicating with your doctor is vital for your overall health. In these cases, many times family members and friends mean well, but often push or talk their cancer patient in to trying some of their supplements to see if they work or benefit their friend. This can be very dangerous and lead the patient to face difficult struggles or end up in the hospital for treatment.

The Many Types of Supplements

Vitamin and Mineral supplements are taken to increase the body’s overall nutritional value if the nutrients are not being absorbed or gotten from the patient’s daily food intake. Vitamins and minerals work together inside of your body in complex ways, affecting absorption and the processing of other foods and nutrients. Your medical care team, doctor, registered dietitian or pharmacist may advise you on the best supplements for your case. Keep in mind the following when taking vitamin and mineral supplements:

  • Tell your medical care team about any and all supplements, vitamins or minerals you are taking, as well as any other natural or holistic medications.
  • Understand that expensive supplements are not necessarily a better quality than a generic or store brand supplement.
  • Make sure to read all labels and that the specifics match your dietary needs as well as the recommended daily value intake
  • Beware of ambitious claims from supplement companies or any unusual or not approved ingredients
  • Talk to your healthcare team to find out if you should be taking supplements, and which would be best for you.

Antioxidant supplements are designed to replace the natural antioxidants found in vegetables and fruits that protect the body from free radicals. Antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, vitamin A, carotenoids, and many types of phytochemicals from plants. Normally, supplements taken each day include the equivalent of five servings of vegetables and fruits. For those patients going through chemotherapy, taking large or unmonitored doses of antioxidants can be dangerous and interfere with treatment. If you are interested in antioxidants, discuss this with your medical care team and devise a proper method on how to take these supplements safely.

Herbal Supplements come in the form of botanical medication derived from plants or plant parts that can treat illness and their related symptoms. Research on herbal supplements is limited, so extreme caution must be taken when ingesting these things while going through cancer treatment or taking heavier medications. These supplements are made from herbs that exist in the culinary and medicinal world. Herbal supplements contain much higher amounts of these herbs than that are normally used in cooking or other healing methods. Herbs have been used for thousands of years to treat disease in numerous countries and cultures. During cancer treatment, these types of supplements should be avoided, but for those herbs used in cooking. These herbs should be avoided during any form treatment:

  • alfalfa
      – borage
      – chaparral
      – Chinese herbs
      – coltsfoot
      – comfrey
      – DHEA
      – dieter’s tea
      – ephedra
      – groundsel or life root
      – kava kava
      – apricot pits
      – licorice root
      – L-tryptophan
      – lobelia
      – mate tea
      – pau d’ Arco
      – pennyroyal
      – sassafras
      – St. John’s wort
      – yohimbe
      – valerian

Risks of Dietary Supplements

There are risks to taking supplements, regardless of the type you are ingesting. Always including your medical care team in the decisions and planning for your supplements is key for success. Remember to bring your dietary supplements with you to your appointments to review with your doctor as make sure you are taking the correct amount.

Dietary supplements can interfere with medications in various ways. Depending on the type of supplement, they could block important cell receptors, create extreme skin sensitivity, and worsen reactions to radiation exposure. Other supplements can interfere with how well your medications work inside of your body. Unlike prescription medications, these supplements do not follow the same FDA regulations, which means the reactions and side effects may still be unknown.

The “natural is safe” and “natural is better” myth is just that- a myth. In many cases, even if the supplement is completely natural, the amounts of ingredients put in to them may be more than the daily recommended allotment. For example, tobacco was once used as a supplement in Indian culture, but now is responsible for over one-third of cancer deaths in the United States (ACS). Always check the quality and quantities of herbs, minerals and other naturally occurring ingredients in each supplement.

If you are considering adding supplements to your medical care routines, remember to check in with your doctor. Beware of claims made on some of these supplements promising the golden cure-all, as most often, that does not exist. Also pay close attention to claims of well-being, health claims, as well as function claims. Function claims are written on product packages, and may say things like, “works as an antioxidant,” or “supports and promotes natural blood glucose levels.” These claims are often misguided or not completely factual.

This article was written as an informative piece educating on the differences and types of supplements and should in no way replace your medical care. You should immediate contact your doctor if you are a cancer patient who has begun taking supplements with no medical consultation. Be safe, and know what you put in to your body!

Resources Used:
American Cancer Society Complete Guide to Nutrition for Cancer Survivors, Barbara Grant, ISBN0944235786
Reclaiming Intimacy

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