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Herbal Remedies and Cancer Treatment: Should You Keep Taking Them?

Do you take herbal medications? For centuries, and even today, herbal medications and alternative medicines have been touted for their health benefits. Nonetheless, did you know that the verdict on their health benefits is actually still not out yet?

So what does this mean?

Although there are several benefits associated with alternative medicine, it is important to discuss with your oncology team if you are taking herbal remedies. Why? Interestingly enough, some of these treatments may actually affect the efficacy of oncologic therapies. Often, oncology teams will recommend that patients stop taking herbal medications one week prior to starting radiation therapy or high dose chemotherapy.

How do herbal medications work?

There are so many herbal medications, and although they may be effective at blood thinning, lowering blood pressure or strengthening your immune system, sometimes the exact actions that these remedies produce may decrease the effectiveness of cancer therapies. Thus, it is extremely important to disclose all medications that you may be taking with your doctor including vitamins, herbal remedies, and minerals.

What are some common herbal medications and what can they do?

Garlic, gingko bilboa and ginseng

Garlic, gingko bilboa and ginseng are grouped together here, because they have anticoagulant effects. Thus, they may increase one's risk for bleeding. What does this mean? It means that before undergoing treatment it is important to discuss with your healthcare team if you are taking any of these remedies as you may need to stop taking them prior to commencing treatment.

Turmeric A plant native to South Asia, turmeric has been used as a spice in Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cooking for centuries. In addition to its use in cooking, curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has recently gained attention for its purported health benefits. Curcumin, in some in vitro and animal studies, has been found to have multiple health benefits including, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and anti-cancer effects. Nonetheless, despite its multiple health benefits, some studies have indicated that curcumin may interfere with liver enzymes, known as cytochrome p450, and hence decrease the efficacy of certain chemotherapies, such as cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin. Curcumin has also been found to have anticoagulant effects and some estrogenic effects. The research on curcumin is not conclusive, and most of the research was not conducted on humans. Therefore, more research is necessary to determine the role of curcumin in alternative medicine. Although turmeric may have many health benefits, it is important to tell your oncology team if you are taking turmeric extracts prior to undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.

St. John's Wort A plant believed to have antidepressant properties, St. John's Wort may interact with certain medications during surgery. Additionally, some studies suggest that St. John's Wort may increase skin sensitivity to radiation treatment.

Fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids

Fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids produce anticoagulant properties that may result in increased bleeding during treatment. Thus, fish oil and omega-3 fatty acid supplements are generally not recommended to be taken during treatment.

What's the bottom line?

The bottom line is that the verdict on the efficacy of herbal remedies is not yet out; however, there are some studies that suggest that certain herbal supplements may interact with medical treatment including medications, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy. Thus, it is important to disclose all medications you may be taking with your oncology team, including herbal medications and dietary supplements.

Please note this is just an overview and does not represent, replace or constitute medical advice. If you have questions about interactions between dietary supplements and/or herbal remedies and your treatment you should discuss them with your oncology team.

Further reading

"Turmeric." Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, n.d. Web. 06 May 2016. <>.

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