Most people assume that over-the-counter (OTC) vitamins and minerals are uniformly safe for everyone to take. Not so fast. A recent study warns that for better and for worse, certain supplements affect patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy.
ABOUT THE STUDY
A research team led by Richard F. Branda, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington, examined a group of 49 women receivng chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer. They asked the women to complete questionnaires about their use of dietary supplements. Thirty-five women (71%) took a combined total of 165 supplements. On average, patients took three supplements, although some took up to 20. Next, the researchers took periodic blood samples from the women to investigate the impact of supplements. Chemotherapy typically causes a decrease in infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils. Dr. Branda and his team discovered that...
*Women who used multivitamins or vitamin E did not lose as many neutrophils as expected.
*In contrast, those who took the B vitamin folate (folic acid) experienced a greater-than-average reduction in these important immune system cells.
Although these results are preliminary, Dr. Branda says...
*Multivitamin-mineral supplements wont hurt -- and actually appear to help -- during chemotherapy. He would, however, avoid high-potency preparations that are designed to treat deficiencies.
*Vitamin E also may be beneficial. Dr. Branda recommends not more than 400 IU daily, but a patient should discuss this with his/her doctor. Caution: Since it can affect platelet function, avoid this nutrient if you are at risk for increased bleeding.
*Folate therapy often is prescribed for its cholesterol-lowering effects. Because folate, or folic acid, may have a negative impact on the immune system during chemotherapy, Dr. Branda recommends that you consult your physician before taking it.
TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR
After they are diagnosed with cancer, many people begin taking nutritional supplements, vitamins and herbs to build up their strength and boost their odds of beating the disease. Because these are natural products -- or in some cases because they fear their doctors may not approve of supplementation -- people often take these remedies without informing their physicians. But natural is not synonymous with safe, warns Dr. Branda. He emphasizes that because many dietary supplements can potentially interact with chemotherapy, to deliver the best care, your oncologist needs to know exactly what you are taking.
Bottom line: Be sure to tell your doctor about all dietary supplements as well as drugs (both prescription and OTC) that you take, especially when you have a chronic medical condition or disease and are taking medicine for it. Healthy people should share the information with their doctors as well. Ideally, your supervising physician should work with a doctor formally trained in nonconventional therapies, such as nutritional supplementation, in order to improve the effectiveness of all prescriptive medications -- including chemotherapy.