Can Supplements Reduce Cancer Side Effects?

Maylin Rodriguez-Paez, RN

Cancer therapies aren't for the faint of heart. They can produce a wide range of side effects making treatment intolerable in many cases.

Fortunately, there are supplements that can make the process bearable and even more comfortable, increasing the probability of a successful treatment and an easier recovery.

Below we'll list some of the potential complications that come up during cancer treatments and ways to protect yourself against them.

Cancer Causes GI problems

Chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells, which is why healthy cells get damaged in the process. If the intestinal lining is significantly damaged, GI problems like severe constipation and diarrhea could result.

Research suggests probiotics may help. A type called Lactobacillus has been shown to reduce the frequency of severe diarrhea and abdominal discomfort during chemotherapy treatments.1

Another helpful supplement is glutamine. This amino acid protects gut mucosa and promotes healing.2 In a clinical trial, cancer patients receiving glutamine intravenously were less likely to experience chemotherapy-induced nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.3

Cancer Causes Neuropathy

About 30%–40% of patients who undergo chemotherapy experience some type of peripheral neuropathy.4 Tingling, stabbing or burning pains may be felt in the limbs or other parts of the body. Standard treatment may include anti-seizure medications which can come with a host of nasty side effects.

Melatonin and acetyl-L-carnitine are well-tolerated supplements. According to studies, they may help to prevent neuropathy when taken along with chemotherapy drugs.5-6 In one trial, patients who took acetyl-L-carnitine after completing chemo treatments experienced reduced peripheral neuropathy symptoms.7

Cancer Decreases Immune Function

Chemotherapy and radiation can affect blood cell production. This puts stress on the immune system and increases the risk for infections. Luckily, there are nutrients that may help to alleviate these effects.

A traditional Chinese herb called astragalus may help. In patients undergoing chemotherapy, those treated with astragalus were less likely to experience drops in white blood cell and platelet counts when compared to a control group. They also had better outcomes.8

Cancer Causes Mucositis

Mucositis is inflammation and ulceration of the GI tract. It typically results from radiation or chemotherapy. Inflammation may occur in the mouth, throat, or lower parts of the GI tract, potentially making eating, swallowing, or even digestion difficult.

Aloe vera juice has been shown to lower the incidence of mucositis in head and neck cancer patients undergoing radiation.9 This effect may be due to its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties.

Glutamine may also be beneficial. In one study, radiation patients taking a glutamine mouthwash experienced a reduction in the severity and duration of mucositis.10

Need More Help?

Interested in learning more about this topic for yourself or a loved one? Feel free to call our oncology health advisors at 1-800-226-2370. The information is completely free and they'll be glad to point you in the right direction.


  1. Br J Cancer.2007 Oct 22;97(8):1028-34.
  2. Am J Physiol.1997 Apr;272(4 Pt 1):G879-84.
  3. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2009 Sep 1;30(5):452-8.
  4. Available at: Accessed January 11th, 2014.
  5. Neuroscience Lett. 2006; 397:219-223.
  6. Support Care Cancer. 1997 Mar;5(2):126-9.
  7. Tumori. 2005 Mar-Apr;91(2):135-8.
  8. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 2002 Jul;22(7):515-7.
  9. Asian Biomedicine. 2009 August; 3(4): 375-382.
  10. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2000 Feb 1;46(3):535-9.


Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries said...

I used acetyl-l-carnitine during chemo (doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, paclitaxel, trastuzumab) for breast cancer. I never had a tingle, and I'm still free of neuropathy.

Unfortunately, a more recent study using ALCAR in breast cancer patients did not have the same good results, so it might be best to offer this supplement with caution.

Fran said...

This is great! Will share this with my aunt about to undergo treatment. Thanks :)

Life Extension said...

Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries - We hear you! Thanks for mentioning it.

Life Extension said...

Fran - Glad you found it helpful. Let us know if you need any assistance.

Life Extension said...

Rui de Castro - You're welcome.

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