Supplements and cancer: What can I take?

“Is it OK to take supplements during chemotherapy or radiation?”

As an integrative physician who specializes in cancer, this is the most common question I hear.

It’s an important area to explore, with the potential to make a significant difference in outcome. But with all the conflicting opinions among experts, many people skirt the issue altogether.

That’s too bad, because they’re foregoing the interactions between supplements and conventional cancer treatments out of fear.

The truth is however, that the use of certain supplements before, during and after chemotherapy and/or radiation may increase efficacy, protect healthy tissues and reduce side effects.

This is the essence of integrative medicine: Combining advanced modalities in strategic ways to fight the disease while supporting a patient’s overall health. This is how we work to optimize results against cancer.

There are three time frames I work within when recommending supplements for patients undergoing chemotherapy: Before the chemo begins, during the chemo cycles and after the chemo is finished.

One of the important principles is to cycle supplements based on the time within the chemo cycle, selecting supplements that have been shown to work well with the specific chemotherapy being used. This is where an integrative oncologist becomes an important asset on the patient’s team.

Anti-inflammatory approaches

In preparation for chemotherapy (and radiation as well), there are a few important steps. One is gentle detoxification: If you have any chronic toxicity or inflammation issues, it’s important to address them beforehand, since inflammation is a fuel for cancer.

An example is dental health. Did you know there are often unrecognized infections hiding in old root canals or under fillings?  Cleaning up the mouth will reduce inflammation and infection, which has the benefit of reducing side effects, limiting cancer’s aggressiveness and supporting natural defenses.

However, avoid doing an extensive detox involving fasting or extreme methods because it can be weakening, unless there’s time to build up your strength again before starting cancer treatment.

On the other hand, a simple, nourishing detox emphasizing an unprocessed diet and gentle cleansing supplements can help strengthen the body, reduce inflammation and boost immunity in preparation. You can also use antioxidants more liberally during this time, to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.

Treatment enhancers

There are also supplements which can enhance the effects of certain chemo drugs, while providing additional benefits. Medicinal mushrooms are excellent supplements before, during and after chemotherapy. They help detoxify, support immune cells and enhance most types of chemotherapy. There are multiple mushrooms that can help, such as reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, maitake, and coriolus. I specifically recommend mushrooms grown on immune enhancing herbs which are shown to be more effective.

  • One of the most researched supplements showing promising results with many types of chemotherapy – including doxorubicin, platinum and taxol drugs – is Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP), a specialized form of pectin backed by extensive research.

MCP works in part by blocking the pro-inflammatory, pro-cancer protein in the body, galectin-3. As such, MCP inhibits one of the primary mechanisms by which the cancer can grow, metastasize and shield itself from chemo drugs.

As the only natural agent which binds and blocks galectin-3 on the surface of cancer cells (and elsewhere in the body), MCP is shown through preclinical studies to work synergistically with chemotherapy drugs like doxorubicin, gemcitabine, paclitaxel and more; it also increases natural killer (NK) and T cells, and gently detoxifies heavy metals and environmental toxins. Furthermore, since MCP blocks galectin-3, it also inhibits inflammation and fibrosis, protecting against the damaging side effects of radiation treatments. To learn more about this important, versatile anti-cancer supplement, I recommend the new book, “New Twist on Health: Modified Citrus Pectin for Cancer, Heart Disease and More” by Karolyn A. Gazella.

  • Another compound shown in pre-clinical studies to enhance many chemotherapies is honokiol, an active antioxidant and anti-inflammatory extract derived from Magnolia officinalis bark.

Honokiol fights aggressive cancers through a number of unusual mechanisms. One of its unique features is that it selectively targets cancer cells using oxidation, allowing it to work well with chemotherapies like platinum drugs, doxorubicin, etc. At the same time, it protects healthy tissues with powerful antioxidant benefits – truly unusual.

Another mechanism by which it works relates to the enzyme mTOR. The mTOR enzyme regulates important activities such as cell growth, proliferation and survival.  Cancer activates mTOR which allows the tumor cells to avoid apoptosis (cell death) and grow uncontrollably. However, honokiol inhibits mTOR, making chemotherapy more effective. Honokiol is also shown to increase radio-sensitivity in certain cancers, making tumors more vulnerable to radiation treatment.

  • Other helpful chemotherapy enhancers are melatonin, high dose intravenous (IV) vitamin C (15+ grams) and ECGC from green tea.

The drug gemcitabine is sensitive to vitamin C plus vitamin K3, so combining these ingredients can help increase effectiveness of this particular drug. With agents that enhance chemotherapy or radiation, it’s important to take them around the time of chemo so they can work together.

Support digestion and circulation

It’s very important to support the health of the GI tract, because often the digestion stops functioning and becomes paralyzed during chemotherapy. In my practice, I use a digestive formula containing enzymes, zinc, ginger, cardamom and other supportive ingredients. Probiotics are also very important, as some chemotherapy (like Cyclophosphamide) requires healthy bacterial balance to metabolize into active components. Take probiotics throughout treatment and afterwards as well.

During the first phase of the chemotherapy cycle, circulation support is critical to ensure that the drugs are reaching their target. The enzymes nattokinase and lumbrokinase along with medicinal mushrooms, Chinese salvia and hawthorn berry are helpful.

About a week after the chemotherapy cycle, once most or all of the drug has had a chance to complete its cycle, we want to support liver detoxification. Milk thistle, liver support formulas, and curcumin help the liver detoxify the byproducts of the cancer.

Beyond chemotherapy treatment

Once chemotherapy is completed, start addressing the mechanisms of the cancer that may have survived. For example, in hormone sensitive cancers, hormonal modulation becomes important, helping the body to metabolize and excrete its steroid sex hormones, with the use of supplements such as DIM (Diindolylmethane), cruciferous vegetable extracts and others.

I will also start supporting vital organs, mitochondrial function and immunity to help nourish and rebuild the body. This is where certain Chinese formulas, medicinal mushrooms, as well as nutrients such as L-carnitine and CoQ10 can be very helpful.

The strategy of synergy

These recommendations are examples of integrative adjuncts which may help certain cancer treatments work more effectively.

It’s important to remember that successful integrative anti-cancer protocols require an individualized strategy that takes into account numerous variables, such as the person’s overall health and lifestyle, the cancer’s origin and genetic make-up; sensitivity to certain drugs, and other factors.

Cancer is notorious for its ability to evade treatment, so it demands an ongoing, responsive strategy where we stay ahead of the disease. There are many unanswered questions, ongoing research and continual refinements in our knowledge regarding use of nutrients and botanicals during conventional treatment.  I don’t recommend a do-it-yourself approach .Working with an integrative health practitioner experienced in this area is one of the most important investments you can make.

These practitioners belong to fast-growing field of medicine and research called integrative oncology, leading the way in developing more effective, patient-centered anticancer protocols available to all.

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Dr. Isaac Eliaz

By Dr. Isaac Eliaz

Dr. Isaac Eliaz is a renowned integrative medical doctor, licensed acupuncturist, researcher, product formulator and frequent guest lecturer. He has been a pioneer in holistic medicine since the early 1980s, and has published numerous peer-reviewed research papers on several of his key integrative health formulas. He is the founder and medical director of Amitabha Clinic in California, an integrative health center specializing in cancer and chronic conditions. Dr. Eliaz is an expert in using highly strategic, synergistic protocols to address numerous areas of health including metastatic cancer, immunity, digestion, detoxification, diabetes, cardiovascular health and more. His approach integrates modern science with traditional healing wisdom for optimal health and wellness. To download any of Dr. Eliaz's comprehensive wellness guides, click here.