A dietary supplement is defined by the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994 as “any product (excluding tobacco), in pill, capsule, or liquid form—containing a vitamin, mineral, herb or other plant product, amino acid, or other known dietary substance that is intended as a supplement to the normal diet.” Such a wide range includes any number of ingestible foods and substances. Supplements and vitamins are commonly used as a complementary or alternative therapy for people with cancer and other illnesses, as well as part of an everyday diet. As it pertains to cancer, the use of supplements is either as a preventative measure, or as part of a treatment program.
Several dietary supplements on the market claim they have the ability to boost health and prevent cancers from forming. Using supplements as a form of cancer prevention can be tricky, especially as consumers attempt to decipher manufacturer’s claims, and incorporate the correct supplements into their existing diet. Antioxidants are a substance often associated with cancer prevention. Antioxidants are believed to prevent cell damage caused by a type of unstable molecule known as free radicals. These can be found in a variety of foods, but are also sold in pill form. Other supplements associated with cancer prevention include vitamins A, C, E and minerals such as selenium.
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Recovering cancer patients may be advised to take in an increased amount of certain nutrients, especially antioxidants. These are known to help maintain healthy cells and can prevent the onset of a new malignant growth. Studies have concluded for the most part that the human body absorbs and transports nutrients found in foods just as efficiently as those found in supplements. This does not mean that certain herbal compounds that contain vitamins and minerals cannot be part of a healthy diet regimen. The most important factors health professionals look at when discussing nutritional requirements for their cancer patients is the past health history of the individual, the type of cancer discovered and the possible interference of certain natural compounds with traditional medical treatments. Even is a product is labeled as natural, it can still have negative interactions with other medications.
The use of supplements is not always recommended, as many of these contain ingredients that, although natural, may interfere with chemotherapy or radiation treatments. However, the use of various supplements is sometimes recommended to thwart the negative side effects associated with these treatments. As with most aspects of cancer treatment, these decisions should be made under the consultation of a medical professional. Until recently the FDA did not require any so-called natural supplements or energy boosters to carry warnings, but simply classified them as GRAS, or “generally regarded as safe.” Today many side effects from herbal supplements have been documented and many of these products can be harmful to recovering cancer patients, especially those who have unstable metabolism or other health complications such as hypertension.
For the most part the medical industry does not frown on dietary supplements but does recommend a regular intake of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and carbohydrates that are found in fruits, vegetables, breads and meats. Evidence shows that the body performs at a more satisfactory level when the stomach and digestive system receives these nutrients in combination with whole foods rather than the patient relying mainly on pills and capsules for their essential nutrition. Organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic all recommend consulting a physician or specialist before beginning any form of treatment, including taking supplements.