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9 Natural Supplements That May Help During Cancer Treatment

Receiving cancer treatment? Research suggests these nine natural supplements may help improve the effectiveness- and reduce the unpleasant side effects-of your cancer treatment.

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Doctor talking to patient in doctor's office about supplementsPhoto: ShutterStock

Counting down the best supplements for cancer treatment

If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, you’re no stranger to combination and complimentary therapies. Along with the remedies mentioned here, other supplements are also being studied to help with the effectiveness and side effects of cancer treatments, such as alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin K and vitamin A.

Remember to talk to your doctor before adding herbs or vitamins to your cancer treatment plan, as they may have adverse interactions with other medications. Supplements that may cause problems include echinacea, licorice, Siberian ginseng and St. John’s Wort. Here are nine recommendations of natural remedies you might want to consider taking during and after your treatment.

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Astragalus supplementsPhoto: ShutterStock

1. Astragalus supplements may help rebuild your immune system after cancer treatment

What is astragalus?

For more than 2,000 years, astragalus has been an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine. Because of its powerful ability to stimulate the body’s immune system, this herb is particularly valuable for fighting disease and dealing with the after-effects of cancer treatments.

Botanically, it’s related to licorice and the pea. Medicinally, the herb’s root is its most important part. Astragalus root is loaded with health-promoting substances like polysaccharides, a class of carbohydrates that appears to be responsible for the herb’s immune-boosting effects.

What does astragalus do?

Astragalus may enhance overall health by improving a person’s resistance to disease, increasing stamina and promoting general well-being. It also acts as an antioxidant, helping the body correct or prevent cell damage, and may have antiviral and antibiotic properties as well.

Astragalus is used to rebuild the immune system of people undergoing radiation or chemotherapy for cancer-it increases the body’s production of white blood cells. For this reason, it may be useful in treating patients with low white blood cell counts.

How to take astragalus

  • Dried root: 2 to 30 grams a day.
  • Liquid extract (1:2): 4.5-8.5 millilitres a day.
  • Decoction: 8 to 12 grams divided into two doses and taken on an empty stomach.
  • For precise doses, follow the label or consult a health-care practitioner.
  • The herb astragalus can be taken at any time during the day with or without food. Allow at least two weeks for positive effects to occur. Astragalus may reduce absorption of medications taken orally, so take these medications and astragalus at different times.
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Cat's claw supplementsPhoto: ShutterStock

2. Cat’s claw supplements may support cancer treatment

What is cat’s claw?

This herb is thought to boost the immune system. Tea from cat’s claw’s bark has been used to treat wounds, stomach illness, arthritis, cancer and other ailments. Several compounds in cat’s claw may account for its alleged cancer-fighting and immune-boosting effects.

What does cat’s claw do?

Modern scientific studies have identified several active ingredients in cat’s claw that enhance the activity of the immune system and inhibit inflammation. Their presence may help explain why this herb traditionally has been used to fight arthritis, cancer, dysentery, ulcers and other infectious and inflammatory conditions.

Some doctors prescribe cat’s claw to stimulate the immune response in cancer patients, many of whom may be weakened by chemotherapy, radiation or other conventional cancer treatments.

How to take cat’s claw

  • Take a standardized extract as directed by a health-care practitioner or following the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Pills containing the crude herb (the ground root or inner bark in non-concentrated form) are often available in 500 or 1000-milligram capsules.
  • Cat’s claw tea is sold in health food stores. Consult a herbalist or naturopath for a dosage recommendation. You can combine or rotate cat’s claw with other immune-stimulating herbs, such as echinacea, goldenseal, reishi and maitake mushrooms, astragalus or pau d’arco. Cat’s claw may increase the risk of bleeding and should be discontinued two weeks before surgery.
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Ginger supplementsPhoto: ShutterStock

3. Ginger supplements may relieve nausea associated with surgery and chemotherapy

What is ginger?

Renowned for its stomach-settling properties, ginger is native to parts of India, China and Jamaica. As a spice, ginger adds a hot and lemony flavour to foods. Medicinally, it’a used by mainstream doctors and plays a major role in traditional healing.

What does ginger do?

For thousands of years, ginger has been popular as a treatment for digestive problems, ranging from mild indigestion and flatulence to nausea and vomiting. It’s also been used to treat morning and motion sickness.

Clinical studies of women undergoing exploratory surgery or major gynaecological surgery showed that one gram of ginger taken before an operation could significantly reduce post-operative nausea and vomiting. Ginger also appears to counter the nausea created by chemotherapy.

How to take ginger

  • To relieve chemotherapy-related nausea, take a single dose of 1.5 grams of dried root. When taking ginger for this purpose, take it with food.
  • Buy ginger supplements standardized to contain “pungent compounds.” These consist of gingerols or their breakdown products shogaols, the active ingredients that give ginger its healing properties.
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Milk thistle flowerPhoto: ShutterStock

4. Milk thistle supplements may support cancer drugs and protect the kidneys and liver during chemotherapy

What is milk thistle?

The medicinal use of milk thistle can be traced back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, researchers have completed more than 300 scientific studies suggesting possible benefits, particularly for treating liver-related ailments.

What does milk thistle do?

Milk thistle is one of the most studied and documented herbs in use today. Scientific research continues to validate its healing powers. Most of its effectiveness stems from a flavonoid complex of three liver-protecting compounds collectively known as silymarin.

Milk thistle is used to support people with cancer undergoing chemotherapy. It appears that milk thistle helps some cancer drugs destroy tumours while protecting the kidneys and possibly also the liver against damage by these drugs. Laboratory research suggests it may also prevent or treat some kinds of cancer, including prostate and breast cancer.

How to take milk thistle

  • For precise doses, consult your health-care practitioner.
  • Milk thistle seed: 12 to 15 grams (equivalent to 200 to 400 milligrams of silymarin) a day in divided doses.
  • Liquid extract (1:1): 4 to 9 millilitres a day.
  • Liquid extract (1:2): 30-60 millilitres a week.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions or consult your health-care practitioner for other preparations.
  • To make sure you’re getting the proper dose, buy products made from standardized extracts that contain 70 to 80 per cent silymarin. You may also want preparations that contain milk thistle bound to phosphatidylcholine, a principal constituent of the natural fatty compound lecithin. Studies show that this combination may be better absorbed than regular milk thistle.
  • Milk thistle is often combined with other herbs and nutrients, such as dandelion, choline, methionine and inositol. This combination may be labelled “liver complex” or “lipotropic factors.”
  • Milk thistle seems most effective when taken between meals. Its may be noticeable within a week or two, although long-term treatment is often needed for ongoing conditions.
  • Don’t take milk thistle if you’re allergic to plants from the Asteraceae or Compositae family, such as ragweed, mugwort, sunflower, daisy or chamomile. If you have a hormone-dependent condition, such as breast or prostate cancer, do not take milk thistle without consulting your doctor.
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Coenzyme Q10 pillsPhoto: ShutterStock

5. Coenzyme Q10 supplements may protect the heart during chemotherapy

What is Coenzyme Q10?

Touted as a wonder supplement, Coenzyme Q10 is reputed to enhance stamina, increase weight loss, combat cancer and AIDS, and even stave off aging. While hard to believe, this nutrient does show promise for treating a number of health conditions.

Coenzyme Q10 belongs to a family of compounds called quinones. In the past decade, Coenzyme Q10 has become one of the world’s most popular dietary supplements. Proponents of the nutrient use it to maintain general good health, as well as to treat heart disease and several other conditions.

What does Coenzyme Q10 do?

The primary function of Coenzyme Q10 is as a catalyst for metabolism. In conjunction with enzymes, the compound speeds up the vital metabolic process, providing the energy that the cells need to digest food, heal wounds, maintain healthy muscles and perform countless other bodily functions.

Coenzyme Q10 may play a role in preventing cancer, heart attacks and other diseases linked to free radical damage. Research suggests that it may also help protect against chemotherapy-induced damage to the heart muscle.

How to take Coenzyme Q10

  • A typical dose is 100 to 150 milligrams a day. Look for formulations that contain Coenzyme Q10 in an oil base (soybean or another oil).
  • Take this supplement in the morning and evening, preferably with fatty food to enhance absorption. Coenzyme Q10 should be continued long term-it may require eight weeks or longer to notice results. Concurrent vitamin B6 supplements may also help.
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Close-up of echinaceaPhoto: ShutterStock

6. Echinacea supplements may improve white blood cell counts after chemotherapy or radiation

What is echinacea?

Echinacea is popular as a safe and powerful immune system booster to fight colds, the flu and other infections. Of the nine echinacea species, three (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea) are used medicinally. They appear in many preparations, which utilize different parts of the plant (flowers, leaves, stems or roots) and come in a variety of forms. The active ingredients in echinacea are thought to strengthen the immune system.

What does echinacea do?

Echinacea acts by stimulating various immune system cells that are key weapons against infection. It also has some antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antifungal effects and contains vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids, selenium and zinc. Studies suggest that the herb boosts the cells’ production of a virus-fighting substance called interferon.

Echinacea may prove effective against some types of cancer, particularly in people with weak immune systems. In a German study, a small group of patients with advanced colon cancer received echinacea along with standard chemotherapy. The herb appeared to prolong survival in these patients.

How to take echinacea

  • Because echinacea comes in many different forms, check the product’s label for the proper dosage.
  • Dried herb: 3 grams a day of either E. angustifolia or E. purpurea.
  • Liquid extract (1:2): 3 to 6 millilitres a day of either E. angustifolia or E. purpurea.
  • Echinacea should be used for no longer than eight weeks, followed by a one-week interval before you resume taking it. Some studies suggest that, with continuous use, the herb’s immunity-boosting effects diminish. Starting and stopping or rotating echinacea with other herbs may maximize its effectiveness. You can take it with or without food.
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Ginkgo bilobaPhoto: ShutterStock

7. Ginkgo biloba supplements may reduce side effects from chemotherapy

What is ginkgo biloba?

This popular herbal medicine is derived from one of the oldest species of tree on earth. Today, it’s widely marketed as a general memory booster. The medicinal form of the herb is extracted from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree. A form of the herb called ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) is used to make dietary supplements. GBE is obtained by drying and milling the plant’s leaves and then extracting the active ingredients in a mixture of acetone and water.

What does ginkgo biloba do?

Ginkgo may have beneficial effects on the circulatory and central nervous systems. It increases blood flow to the brain, arms and legs by regulating the tone and elasticity of blood vessels. It also acts like aspirin by helping reduce the “stickiness” of the blood, thereby lowering the risk of blood clots.

Ginkgo appears to have antioxidant properties as well, mopping up the damaging compounds known as free radicals and aiding in the maintenance of healthy blood cells. Some researchers report that it enhances the nervous system by promoting the delivery of additional oxygen and blood sugar to nerve cells.

How to take ginkgo biloba

  • Generally, use supplements that contain ginkgo biloba extract (GBE), the concentrated form of the herb, as a 50:1 standardized extract. For precise doses, consult your health-care practitioner.
  • Make sure you buy preparations with ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) to ensure that you’re getting a standardized amount of the active ingredients. GBE supplements should contain at least 22 per cent flavone glycosides (organic substances responsible for the herb’s antioxidant and anticlotting properties) and five per cent terpene lactones (primarily chemicals called ginkgolides and bilobalides, which improve blood flow and may protect the nerves).
  • Although you may see effects in four to six weeks, it often takes up to 12 weeks for positive benefits. You can take ginkgo biloba with orwithout food. Ginkgo biloba is generally considered safe for long-term use when it’s taken in recommended dosages.
  • People allergic to members of the Ginkgoaceae family, mango rind, sumac, poison ivy or cashews should use ginkgo cautiously.
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Close-up of Withania rootsPhoto: ShutterStock

8. Withania supplements may help reduce weight loss as a result of cancer treatment

What is withania?

Withania is a perennial with small, yellow and green flowers, and an orange berry. The root is used medicinally but the berries, leaves and bark are sometimes used too. It contains steroidal lactones, flavonoids, alkaloids, phytosterols and iron.

What does withania do?

Withania is thought to be capable of modulating the body’s response to stress-in the brain, it appears to stimulate the GABAergic system, the system involved in calming and quieting brain activity. By acting on the adrenal glands, it may also reduce blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is raised in chronic stress and can cause adverse effects.

Experts think withania may help support people with cancer. For instance, it may reduce the weight loss that commonly occurs with this condition. More importantly, it may help reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy on the bone marrow, which is where red and white blood cells are made.

How to take withania

  • Dried root: take 3 to 6 grams a day in capsule form or as a tea.
  • Fluid extract (1:2): take 5 to 13 millilitres a day.
  • Your health-care practitioner can prescribe a specific dose, possibly coupled with other appropriate herbs, to suit your specific needs.
  • If you are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy or taking immune-suppressing drugs, consult your specialist before taking withania.
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Close-up of aloe vera planetPhoto: ShutterStock

9. Aloe vera supplements may soothe skin irritation caused by radiation therapy

What is aloe vera? 

Aloe vera has fleshy leaves that provide a gel widely used as a topical treatment for skin problems.

What does aloe vera do?

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how aloe vera works, but they have identified many of its active ingredients. The gel contains natural anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agents that may help treat pain and reduce swelling. Aloe vera also dilates the capillaries, allowing more blood to get to an injury and thereby speeding healing.

Aloe vera gel particularly helps damaged skin. Scientific evidence supports use in the treatment of dandruff and psoriasis, and it may also help mouth ulcers, and treat skin irritation caused by radiation therapy. Researchers are exploring aloe vera’s effectiveness in the treatment of people with AIDS, leukemia, diabetes and asthma.

How to take aloe vera

  • External use: liberally apply aloe vera gel or cream to injured skin as needed or desired.
  • When buying aloe products, make sure aloe vera is near the top of the ingredients list. Topical preparations should contain at least 20 per cent aloe vera.
  • Aloe vera gel can be applied repeatedly. Just rub it on the affected area, let it dry and reapply when needed. Fresh gel from a live leaf is the most potent (and economical) form. Cut off several inches from a leaf, then slice the cutting lengthwise. Spread the gel from the centre of the leaf onto the affected area.
  • Do not use aloe vera on deep or surgical wounds.
  • Chamomile may also be effective in treating skin damaged by radiation from cancer treatment-consider trying it in combination or as an alternative to aloe vera.

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