Nutritional supplements have certainly stepped into the limelight following the global pandemic as everyone got up to speed on vitamin D and anything with anti-viral capacity.
Whilst this is a positive step in many ways it also brings risk as people dabble with self-supplementation, lacking the necessary guidance and understanding to make the right choice for their personal needs.
In terms of using nutritional supplements to lower cancer risks or support cancer treatment, the research is limited.
There is also evidence of certain supplements interfering with drug metabolism and must be strictly avoided during cancer treatment.
It is also possible that some supplements can be utilised by cancer cells to fuel replication and growth. Certain treatments work by actively depriving cancer cells of micronutrients like folate that it will use to reproduce. Supplementing containing these nutrients, especially in high doses, could therefore have adverse effects.
General Advice With Nutritional Supplements
Because of their ‘natural’ reputation, many people deem supplements to be harmless and often just buy upon a recommendation from a colleague, friend or magazine article.
Ideally, you should apply the same logic to supplements as you do to medications to have the desired impact and ensure you’re investing in the correct product. The dose, quality of the product, administration (liquid, powder, capsules or topical) and whether you need it are highly relevant.
This is why it’s essential to seek supplement guidance from a credible source who is trained and experienced in assessing your current health, blood tests, dietary intake and lifestyle.
If you don’t seek professional guidance and establish your requirements you risk the following:
- Developing nutrient imbalances that impact basic functions in the body
- Digestive complications as some supplements can cause loose bowel movements or constipation
- Overstimulation with supplements can negatively impact sleep or mood health
- Wasting money on supplements that aren’t required
- Causing health complications with excessive supplements including calcification of soft tissues
Supplements and Cancer Risk
A decline in health or diagnosis often leads people to start a supplementation plan, typically involving turmeric and green tea. This is skewing the observational research on supplement risks as usage is becoming associated with the incidence of diseases like cancer. In actual fact, it’s a reaction to it or the symptoms preceding an eventual diagnosis.
Currently, there is no concrete evidence that any supplement can prevent cancer.
They have the potential to cause both adverse and beneficial effects.
For example, beta carotene supplements can increase the risk of both stomach cancer and lung cancer, there is an additional risk if you smoke or have exposure to asbestos.
Low vitamin D status is commonly observed in cancer cases upon diagnosis, it is debated whether supplementation decreases risk, interestingly it seems to be beneficial if you maintain a healthy weight
It is also deemed ‘clinically meaningful‘ in terms of improving survival outcomes.
[Side note: regardless of where the research, I personally think it makes sense to keep your vitamin D levels optimal, between 75-100 nmol/L]
Supplement Support and Cancer Treatment
Nutritional supplementation certainly has a potential role alongside cancer treatments, however, it must be tailored to an individual including diet, genetics, tumour histology, and treatment.
Some nutrients like folate, glutathione and glutamine are actively discouraged, also anything that alters drug metabolism including St John’s Wort, grapefruit and green tea.
One of the primary roles for supplements is to improve nutrient status at the onset, during and after treatment.
There are some common insufficiencies that occur in the general population, especially the elderly, including B12, iron, vitamin D, Omega 3’s and selenium. Whilst dietary adaptations can address them, supplements can optimise levels quickly and safely if dosed correctly.
Some cancer treatments and surgeries may alter the digestive function and stop cancer patients from absorbing nutrients. In which case, nutritional supplements may be prescribed by oncologists.
These can all be tested via the
- Vitamin D
- Iron / Ferritin
- Active B12 or Methylmalonic Acid Test (B12) *these are more accurate than serum B12 tests
- Fatty acid profile *assesses the balance of essential fats including Omega 3:6 ratios
Food-based supplements are provided by brands like Cytoplan and Wild Nutrition.
Avoiding high dose multi’s is sensible beyond cancer treatment.
New trials are establishing the role of the gut microbiome and cancer. Probiotics are generally avoided in many clinical settings, however, following treatment prebiotic supplements and foods have the potential to modulate the gut microbiome positively. They can also help restore bowel function following surgery which often impacts gut motility.
Whilst turmeric has an anti-cancer reputation it’s actually contraindicated with some treatments yet supportive of others. The CUFOX trial confirmed the efficacy of using curcumin (in Meriva form) alongside FOLFOX chemotherapy for advanced bowel cancer that has spread to the liver. This is an interesting study.
Medicinal mushrooms, in particular, turkey tail (also known as Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor) is also emerging as having the potential to support oncological treatment and minimise side effects.
There’s also plenty that can be done with regards to symptoms including vitamin B6 for neuropathy, essential oils, Epsom salts, protein powder (to prevent cachexia and sarcopenia), fasting around treatments.
A comprehensive digestive protocol would be hugely beneficial to rebuild the gut microbiome and overall immune system health using digestive enzymes, prebiotics, probiotics and possibly other nutraceuticals to normalise bowel movements and repair the intestinal lining.
All should be subject to professional supervision and oncological approval. You can join my waiting list for nutritional therapy support here.