Naturopathic Support for Chemotherapy and Radiation

Chemotherapy is often a necessary and effective part of cancer treatment, but its side effects can be just as damaging as the cancer. Naturopathic therapies increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy while reducing its side effects, prevent long-term complications, and reduce the risk of secondary cancers. Even though there are effective drugs available to alleviate chemotherapy side effects, naturopathic therapies can also protect and support the body through the treatment.

Radiation destroys rapidly growing cells. However, it cannot differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells that naturally grow rapidly (e.g., hair cells, mucosal cells). Side effects from the death of healthy cells can be serious. There are naturopathic therapies that can support the benefits of radiation, while reducing the damage to the healthy cells and the risk of secondary cancers caused by the radiation.

Preparing in the weeks or, if possible, months prior to chemotherapy or radiation therapy helps fortify the body's ability to deal with uncomfortable side effects. It also gives the patient more control over the therapeutic process, which can alleviate the anxiety and emotional stress generated by cancer treatment.

Before and during cancer treatment, patients should prepare emotionally. Many people experience little discomfort and are able to continue work and family activities with little disruption. Anxiety often disrupts patients' lives more than the therapy. Anxiety and stress make recovering from cancer more difficult. Remember to relax. Many people rush around before treatment, exhausting themselves, trying to prepare everything and everyone, anticipating that they will be too sick to do anything during treatment. Let friends and family pick up the slack. This is an important time to focus on the healing process.

Patients also should get plenty of sleep. Anxiety and fear can make falling or staying asleep difficult. There are several nontoxic herbal and homeopathic sleep aids, as well as nutritional supplements, that can be helpful in relieving insomnia.

Herbal sleep aids:

  • Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) —Take 300–450 mg 1 hour before bed.
  • Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) —Infuse 1 tsp dried herb in 1 cup of hot water and drink in the evening to calm the nervous system.
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) —Take 150–300 mg 1 hour before bed.

Homeopathic sleep aids:

The following over-the-counter formulas should be used as directed:

  • Calm Formula by Boericke
  • Calms Forte by Hyland Homeopathics
  • Insomnia Formula by Hyland Homeopathics

Natural sleep aids:

These supplements should be taken 1 hour before bed for the best results.

  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)—Take 100–300 mg with fruit juice or other carbohydrate (e.g., crackers, soy milk). This amino acid supports serotonin production in the brain and improves sleep.
  • Flaxseed oil—Take 1 tbsp daily. This essential fatty acid strengthens and supports the nervous system.
  • Magnesium citrate—Take 250 mg.

Chronic gastrointestinal problems can severely impact overall health and slow down recovery from chemotherapy. Consult a naturopathic physician or holistic MD or DO to treat chronic gastrointestinal problems. The following nutritional supplements can help build and protect gastrointestinal tissues and enable the body's nutrient stores to rebound from toxic chemotherapeutics:

  • Antioxidants—Taking an ACES (vitamin A–25,000 IU daily; vitamin C–1000 mg 3 times daily with meals; vitamin E–400 IUs 2 times daily; and selenium–200 mcg daily) antioxidant supplement just before and during therapy can decrease the toxicity of chemotherapy while increasing its effectiveness.
  • Flaxseed—Flaxseed meal has several beneficial properties that can support the digestive system before, during, and after chemotherapy treatment. It is a mucilaginous fiber, meaning it turns into a soothing protective gel in the digestive tract and, because it is high in Omega 3 oils, flaxseed also help reduce inflammation. The recommended daily amount is 2–4 tbsp freshly ground flaxseed.
  • Glutamine—Take 500 mg 3 times daily. This amino acid is the preferred energy source for the upper gastrointestinal tissues. It helps prevent stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth) and can significantly reduce nausea associated with chemotherapy.
  • Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)—Take 250 mg 3 times daily. Helps to protect the liver from toxins associated with chemotherapy, making it easier to recover from a cycle of chemotherapy with less nausea, lack of appetite, fatigue, and flu-like achiness.
  • Vitamin K—Take 500–1000 mcg daily. Most forms of vitamin K are derived from bacteria in the intestines. The intestinal bacteria balance is severely disrupted during chemotherapy treatment, and vitamin K deficiencies can cause problems with blood clotting and bruising.
  • Protein—A daily smoothie with fresh or frozen fruit (blueberries, strawberries, or other blue, red, or orange-colored fruits), protein powder, and flaxseed meal is a good source of fiber, protein, and natural bioflavonoids.
  • Whole foods diet—Increase the amount of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat proteins (fish, white-meat poultry, soy) in the diet.

During treatment, be sure to drink 50 percent of your body weight in ounces of water daily (e.g., if you weigh 150 lbs, drink 75 oz of water daily) to keep tissues hydrated and reduce constipation. Also, exercise regularly to increase energy, vitality, circulation, and waste product removal.

Natural treatments that help minimize side effects.

For diarrhea:

  • Acidophilus—Take 2–3 capsules daily.
  • Acupuncture
  • Berberine-containing plants—Goldenseal, berberis, or Oregon grape
  • Betonite clay—Add ½–2 tsp to water or juice, let stand for a while, and drink once a day until diarrhea stops.
  • Glutamine—Take 2 tsp in juice 3 times daily.
  • Whey protein—Take 1–4 tbsp mixed into yogurt or juice daily.

For hair loss:

  • Vitamin E—Take 1600 IUs daily for 1 week before starting chemotherapy.

For nausea and vomiting:

  • Acupuncture
  • Citrus—Eat oranges, tangerines, or grapefruit.
  • Ginger—This herb can be eaten in food, made into a tea, or taken as a tincture. Ginger is pleasant tasting and warming.
  • Miso
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs—See a Chinese Medicine practitioner for an appropriate formula.

For mucositis:

  • Acidophilus—Take 2–3 capsules daily. The mouth can also be rinsed out with the contents of one capsule mixed in warm water before bed.
  • Chlorophyll—Take 100 mg 3 times daily.
  • Folic acid—Take 400 mcg daily.
  • Glutamine—Place 2 tsp directly into the mouth and wash down with water daily.
  • Herbs—Chamomile, licorice, and slippery elm. Rinse mouth with a tea 4–6 times daily.
  • Vitamin E—Take 400 IUs 2 times daily. Vitamin E oil may be applied directly to an oral lesion. Puncture a gel capsule and squeeze the oil onto the lesion.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015