The Merit of Supplements in Good Nutrition

The use of complementary and alternative therapies in cancer treatment has risen in recent years, including the use of dietary supplements. A wide variety of vitamins, minerals and herbs are now readily available in pharmacies, supermarkets and health food stores, and many cancer patients view these supplements as a way to counteract treatment-related side effects or to treat the cancer itself. It’s estimated that approximately one-third of cancer patients use one or more herbal supplements during treatment, and a recent study reported that 65 percent of chemotherapy patients in one clinic had taken a dietary supplement, not including vitamins.

While the best source of vitamins and minerals is always whole, minimally processed food, supplements may be necessary for many patients, especially those who are unable to obtain adequate amounts of certain nutrients through food, usually due to treatment-related side effects. And used in the proper way, many supplements can be very effective at reducing the risk of some diseases, lessening the severity of certain side effects, and strengthening the immune system in general.



A multivitamin that contains 100 percent of the recommended daily value of at least two-thirds of its vitamins and minerals is usually recommended for most patients.



However, it’s important to be aware of the potential dangers of these types of supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that the number of illnesses, injuries and reactions linked to supplements has increased each of the last few years, and more than 35,000 calls to poison control centers in 2011 were due to supplements. In addition, a 2013 study that tested 44 herbal products showed that 59 percent of them also contained plant species not listed on the label, and 33 percent contained contaminants and fillers not listed. It’s important to note that while supplement manufacturers are required to meet certain FDA quality standards, the FDA does not test them for safety or authenticity before they arrive in stores.


Tip from the dietitian

“Dietary and nutritional supplements, used on the advice of your health care team, can assist in keeping your weight stable and ensuring that you are getting enough protein, calories and other nutrients. But remember, vitamin and mineral supplements DO NOT replace food in the diet; the best source of vitamins and minerals is always from the food itself.”

       - Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, registered dietitian, PearlPoint Nutrition Services



The biggest concern with the majority of supplements, however, is how they react with cancer treatments and other medications. Some of these interactions can cause dangerous side effects or reduce the effectiveness of some treatments. Additional warnings regarding supplements include:

  • Be wary of any product that makes bold claims about its results; anything that seems too good to be true usually is.
  • Even though supplements are sold over the counter, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily safe, and taking large doses can have dangerous implications.
  • Just because something is “natural” doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe.
  • A supplement or remedy may have existed for thousands of years, but that does not necessarily mean it’s safe or that it works. Do your research on how the herb or plant is meant to be used and what precautions you should take.

Always discuss with your doctor any supplements you currently take or are planning to take to learn about possible benefits and risks as well as potential drug interactions. If used properly and with the supervision of your health care team, dietary supplements may provide helpful benefits to your nutrition and overall health.


Shining the light on vitamin D

A necessary nutrient for the human body, vitamin D regulates the balance of calcium and phosphorous in the body by controlling how much is absorbed from food to how much is added to the bones for optimal bone health. And in recent studies, vitamin D has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers as well as increase survival rates for some cancer patients.

One study looked at a total of 4,443 patients with breast cancer from 1966 to 2010 and found that those women with higher levels of vitamin D in their blood had a 50-percent lower fatality rate, compared with women with low levels of the vitamin.

“There is no compelling reason to wait for further studies to incorporate vitamin D supplements into standard care regimens,” said Cedric Garland, DrPH, one of the researchers, in a news release.

Another study followed 36,000 postmenopausal women over 12 years and showed a 9-percent reduction in all cancers for those who supplemented their diet with vitamin D.

Vitamin D is found in small amounts in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, fish liver oils, beef liver and egg yolk, and much of the milk supply in the U.S. is fortified with vitamin D, along with some cereals, yogurt and orange juice. The main source of vitamin D, however, is the sun. The body can produce its own vitamin D with enough direct exposure to natural sunlight.

Although you may be tempted to immediately increase your vitamin D intake, remember that it’s possible to have too much vitamin D in your blood, which can be harmful. Like other supplements, vitamin D can also interact with certain medications or treatments, so be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any vitamins or supplements.


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