Nutritional Supplements and the Benefits they Offer

Posted 3 months ago

Can Nutrition Reduce the Risk of Cancer?

As a cancer specialist, one of the most common questions patients ask is about nutritional supplements and the benefits they offer. Can they help control cancer? Do they reduce the risk of developing cancer? Can they help prevent other diseases and conditions? As it turns out, there is remarkably little useful data about the benefits of supplements. 

It seems that nearly every month, another fad supplement pops up, claiming to have benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, according to one article in Smithsonian Magazine, research has found only five supplements worth taking. Each new idea is important to consider because we’re always looking for that extra help in keeping our patients well.

While a few supplements that are proven useful when it comes to cancer interventions, research suggests that certain dietary and supplement recommendations may help to prevent cancer and control the side effects of treatment.

How Diet Affects Cancer

It wasn’t until recently that humans have cut out the natural, unprocessed foods from our diet. We often don’t even realize how we replaced them with highly processed, packaged, and even artificial foods that are calorie-dense but nutrient-poor. These foods may taste good, but in reality, they do little good for our bodies, especially if you have cancer. We’ve also increased meat in our diet to nearly every meal from where it was once a rarity. Can Nutrition Reduce the Risk of Cancer? Dr. Arvind Bakhru Ironwood Women's Centers

 The dietary damage we have done to ourselves – coupled with environmental degradation – has led to obesity, psychological problems with impulse control, early-onset heart disease, and an increase in cancer occurrence.

Americans now consume the least amount of fiber ever in human history. This means that, when we eat, our glucose peaks faster and higher than ever before. What we eat is also no longer complex carbs, but more often simple, refined sugars. The complexity of our food has decreased with the goal of instant carbohydrate satisfaction that lasts only a short time, leaving us desiring even more.

When it comes to preventing cancer, it is essential to strive for a healthy and balanced diet that is rich in natural, plant-based foods. Diets such as the alkaline diet, ketogenic diet, low glycemic index diet, high-fiber diet, the Blue Zone diet and the Mediterranean diet are all centered on increasing the quantity of plant-based foods that we consume. Although there is no conclusive proof that links plant-based diets and cancer prevention, research does suggest we should be consuming more fruits and vegetables to protect ourselves from cancer.

How Sugar Intake Affects Cancer

A plant-based diet is not the only factor that affects cancer prevention and control. In treating endometrial, ovarian, breast, or even colon cancers, sugar matters. More and more evidence is implicating sugar intake in tumor growth, tumor mutation, and tumor resistance. Can Nutrition Reduce the Risk of Cancer? Dr. Arvind Bakhru Ironwood Women's Centers

As a result of continued research in this area, increasing evidence is present to suggest that control of sugar intake is important. There are a number of clinical trials currently underway studying Metformin in cancer. Metformin is a diabetes medicine used to help control blood sugar. Metformin has clear anticancer properties in the lab, affecting cancer stem cells, the immune response to cancer, and even chemosensitivity. 

Dietary restrictions, controlled sugar intake, and exercise can have a significant impact on cancer prevention and control. Studies are finding that dietary control and exercise in patients who have had endometrial cancer can substantially reduce the risk of recurrence – maybe by 20 to 30 percent.

How Supplements Affect Cancer

So, what about supplements? Can they help to control or reduce the risk of cancer? The FDA regulates supplements, but the regulations are not the same as prescription drugs. Drugs need to be both safe and effective. Supplements, however, need to be moderately safe. The FDA does not regulate the efficacy of supplements. Many trials investigating supplements in high-risk persons for cancer have found an increase in cancer rates — the opposite of what we’d hope to find with a supplement.

So are there any safe supplements for cancer patients? Fish oil and vitamin D hold much promise but need to be studied more. The biggest concern with fish oil is the route of delivery. Swallowing a capsule does not provide the same benefits as actually eating fish. Supplements are not food. The chemicals absorb and act differently within the body when we purify, concentrate, and put it in a capsule.

Nutritional Supplements and the Benefits they OfferWhat about vitamin D? Low vitamin D is extremely common — even in the Sunny Phoenix — and it is associated with ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and many other health problems. The real question here is, “Why is it low in the first place?” Are individuals with low vitamin D simply sicker, not so active, and more prone to health problems? The jury is still out.

In addition to fish oil and vitamin D, there are a few other supplements that may be beneficial. As many of my patients know, there are known benefits associated with vitamin B6, turmeric, green tea, and even garlic, which can help reduce nausea caused by cancer treatment. 

Glutamine powder has also been shown to help with neuropathy, which is a common side effect of chemotherapy that affects the peripheral nerves and typically causes numbness or weakness.

It is important to talk with your doctor and pharmacist about herbs and supplements you are taking or considering taking. The FDA may regulate them, but remember, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are beneficial. 

Lastly, I would point patients toward the MSKCC index on supplements, which helps you learn about the supplements you may be inclined to put in your body:

Nutritional supplements and the benefits they offer will work as long as you focus on your diet and exercise, you will have a greater chance of preventing or controlling cancer. 

Stay well!

About the Author, Dr. Arvind Bakhru

Arvind Bakhru, MD, MPH Ironwood Women's CentersDr. Arvind Bakhru is board-certified in Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Gynecologic Oncology. He is a member of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology, International Gynecologic Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology, and American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  As a Gynecologic Oncologist, he specializes in complex pelvic surgery, minimally invasive surgery, and chemotherapy for women with gynecologic cancers and pre-cancers.

Dr. Bakhru cares for women with ovarian cancers, endometrial and uterine cancers, sarcomas, vulvar cancers, vaginal, and cervical cancers. He is trained in minimally invasive techniques and advanced, precision da Vinci® robotic surgery. He is adept at avoiding lymphedema with sentinel node surgery where appropriate. He also counsels those with a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA mutations, and Lynch Syndrome to reduce their risk of cancer.

About Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers

Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers (ICRC) is the largest multi-specialty oncology network in the Greater Metro Phoenix area. They have over 100 medical providers, a robust Integrative Services program and a dedicated clinical research department. Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers has 15 valley locations and five comprehensive cancer care centers that offer a multi-disciplinary approach for expedited personalized patient care. For more information, please visit