Cancer Urban Legend: Vitamins and Supplements Can Lower My Cancer Risk

February 21, 2017 | by Dory Benford

There are many misconceptions about using vitamins and supplements as a fast and easy way to get the nutrients your body requires, especially since everything from antioxidant rich teas to anti-inflammatory omega fatty acids are now widely available in pill form.

It is true that many vitamins, teas and herbs contain anti-cancer compounds, so it is tempting to think that preventing cancer is as simple as popping a pill and reaping its health benefits.

But when it comes to cancer prevention, there are no quick fixes.

Here is what you need to know before relying on vitamins and supplements for their cancer-fighting properties.

“The first thing I tell people when it comes to vitamins and supplements is that they’re not really regulated by any governing body, so we’re really relying on the manufacturer’s honesty,” said Beatriz Campos, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.E., clinical dietitian at City of Hope.

“Sometimes they even have toxins in them. There have been reports that some have been contaminated with bacteria. So you have to be really careful and really thorough in researching the manufacturers of the vitamins you purchase. I don’t recommend people purchase vitamins from bargain bin type places because those are the ones that tend to be the most inaccurate.”

In addition to monitoring how your supplements are manufactured, it’s also important to pay close attention to your dosage.

Researchers have found that taking extra high doses of antioxidants like vitamin C, selenium and vitamin E can actually increase your risk of cancer. Additionally, if you take enough calcium for your body, it can reduce your risk of colon cancer, but if you take too much, it can increase your risk of prostate cancer, explained Campos.

Despite the risk, vitamins and supplements do have their place in a healthy diet, particularly for cancer patients eating a restricted diet or other individuals with specific vitamin deficiencies.

“If someone is eating a very limited diet, just surviving on rice and chicken because it’s the only food they can eat, then I would probably recommend a multivitamin because I know it’s going to give them 100 percent of everything that they need. It’s a good insurance policy against them becoming deficient,” Campos said.

“There is a place for specific vitamins if the patient is at risk of a deficiency. I think the challenge is that a lot of people think they need extra amounts of vitamins in high doses. And that’s not what I would recommend.”

Vitamins and minerals aren’t the only types of supplements people turn to as natural cancer prevention remedies.

Concentrated doses of teas and even the contents of your spice rack are sold in tiny capsules, with the promise that their health benefits are just as good if not better than the real thing.

Fish oil, for example, is a popular supplement, praised for its anti-inflammatory properties.

“I think fish oil is good for all different types of conditions: heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” said Campos.

“But you see a much stronger effect when you’re getting it from food, like from eating two servings of salmon or another fatty fish per week. That’s a much better way to get your fish oil than having to take a supplement, but if somebody doesn’t like fish or is a vegetarian, then there’s other vegetarian sources of the same kinds of fats that are in fish oil, like flaxseed and walnuts.”

Green tea’s healing powers have been recognized for centuries and for good reason. This powerful beverage is filled with anti-cancer compounds and antioxidants to fight free radicals. But brewing yourself a cup of green tea is far superior to taking a supplement.

“Teas do have components in them that are cancer preventive. Specifically the polyphenols, and green tea has catechins. The antioxidant activity is highest in green tea so if you were going to start drinking tea, green tea would be the best.”

For patients undergoing cancer treatment, however, drinking green tea is not encouraged.

“During cancer treatment we actually tell patients to really hold off on drinking green tea,” Campos said.

“Because it’s so high in antioxidants, we don’t want anybody taking high doses because they can interact with chemotherapy and radiation.”

Concerning herbs and spices, there is a lot of buzz around the benefits of turmeric, thanks to its antioxidant and antimicrobial activity. But while popping a turmeric pill may seem like an easy shortcut, it’s actually better to include this spice in your cooking.

“I think a better way to include turmeric in your diet is by using the spice in your cooking. Use it as a food, as opposed to thinking of it as a supplement that you have to take every day,” said Campos.

“All our herbs and spices have some kind of nutrition in them that makes them antioxidants or cancer protective, so you really are giving yourself the best benefit when you get a variety of these herbs and spices in your diet.”

For all of these supplements, one thing is clear — it is best to consume your vitamins and nutrients from actual foods. No pill alone will magically reduce your cancer risk.

“Rather than focusing on pills, focus on eating the whole fruits and vegetables and plant-based foods that are going to give you these vitamins naturally,” said Campos.

 

Stories of Hope is a monthly series that explores important issues in healthcare. During National Cancer Prevention Month, we're taking a closer look at the science - and the psychology - behind cancer prevention.
 
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