Dietary supplements are intended to help people meet nutritional needs. When used correctly, they can help reduce your risk of certain diseases, minimize discomfort, and improve your quality of life. But are they appropriate if you are undergoing cancer treatment?
“The short answer is that we don’t really know enough about how dietary supplements interact with cancer treatment, and until we know more, it’s hard to recommend their use to anyone who are being treated for cancer,” says Nebraska Medicine cancer physician Christopher D’. Angelo, MD.
Read on to learn more about dietary supplements, their risks, and what to consider if you’re being treated for cancer.
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplements refer to a wide range of nutritional products, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and enzymes. You can find them in many forms, such as pills, gummies, powders, and liquids. Unlike prescription or over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements are not intended to treat, prevent, or cure disease.
Are all supplements regulated?
Herbal supplements fall under the category of dietary supplements and are regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. However, they are not regulated as strictly as prescriptions or over-the-counter medications. In fact, supplement makers can say what they want about their products if they follow these rules:
- Ensure supplements are free of contaminants and accurately labeled
- Have research to support claims that a product treats a nutrient deficiency or promotes health, and include a disclaimer stating that the FDA has not evaluated the claim
- Avoid making specific medical claims, such as reduced urinary frequency
What are the risks of taking supplements during cancer treatment?
Most people can safely use dietary supplements if they don’t take too much, but supplements aren’t completely safe. For example, guidelines published by the US Preventive Services Task Force recommend against taking beta-carotene, a compound that converts to vitamin A in the body, which may increase the risk of lung cancer in patients who smoke tobacco or have been exposed to asbestos.
If you have taken supplements and wish to continue taking them, it is important to discuss this with your doctor. Some supplements may interact with your cancer treatment and increase side effects or decrease effectiveness.
When might a cancer patient need to take supplements?
If you’re getting all the nutrients you need from the foods you eat, you’re unlikely to need a dietary supplement. However, if you cannot get essential nutrients from your diet, a general multivitamin may be beneficial, even during cancer treatment.
Additionally, your doctor may prescribe a supplement if you have or could develop a vitamin deficiency caused by cancer treatment. For example, some cancer therapies can weaken bones and contribute to osteoporosis. So your doctor may prescribe calcium and vitamin D to support your bone health. Additionally, some chemotherapies can decrease potassium and magnesium, so your doctor may recommend supplementing them during treatment as well.
Otherwise, it is best to withdraw the use of dietary supplements until you have completed your cancer treatment to minimize the burden of pills and conflicting effects on the body. There is some evidence to suggest that ginseng may help relieve fatigue in cancer patients after treatment. Even then, it depends on various factors. Therefore, it is best to work with your doctor to determine what is best for you.
What are some common misconceptions about supplements?
A common misconception is that we need to take supplements. Most of the vitamins and minerals we need are adequately supplied in our diet. If not, it’s a great opportunity to change your diet to be healthier. Your doctor can refer you to a dietitian who can work with you to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need.
Additionally, many people believe that all supplements are created equal. It’s not true. The quality of nutritional supplements varies greatly and it is important to do your due diligence to check the ingredients and understand how they will affect you. Working with your doctor can help, but ultimately, if a product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Another misconception is that when you take a multivitamin, your body will use what it needs and get rid of the rest naturally. In truth, it is better not to introduce anything into our body that we do not need. Unless you have a history of a specific vitamin deficiency or are at risk for one, try to get your nutrients through food.
“A supplement must be extremely safe for me to consider recommending its use during cancer treatment,” says Dr. D’Angelo. “I often tell patients, ‘If these supplements aren’t important to you, I wouldn’t recommend taking them.'”
Worried about cancer?
Call 402.559.5600 to make an appointment with a cancer specialist.
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