Studies gone bad have alerted us to the fact that some supplements, especially in higher doses, can have no effect or even CAUSE cancer rather than help fight or prevent it. The thought was simple and noble and is the reason we do clinical research studies rather than rely totally on animal studies or laboratory research in test tubes and Petri dishes. What SHOULD work well might be disastrous.
Do your own research before choosing supplements
By research I mean look at what was published with a very critical eye. If you don’t know how research is structured, ask for help. Not all research is the same, not all research is done well and some is very early in development. Something that is early in development, like in a lab or animal study, does not prove or disprove much. Similarly epidemiologic studies, although in some ways “better” because they are based on human data, can only show “associations” and not causation. Results from ANY of these can only SUGGEST that it has to be studied in human clinical trials. Why? Because of this very issue with supplements causing cancer. The idea was great and plausible, but fell apart badly when tested in humans.
Anti-oxidants theoretically fight cancer. When consumed in food, in almost all cases this is true and the synergies that are in food between micro-nutrients were put there and refined over eons. However, when you split something out, like a single anti-oxidant, especially synthetic versions, and then use them as a pill supplement the result can be quite different. The following are a few cases in point.
Consistent epidemiologic evidence suggested that high intake of fruit and vegetables are associated with a reduced risk of lung cancer. So, which micro-nutrients are the most likely in this mix? Among many candidates, several top picks surfaced based on biochemistry, lab and animal studies. Retinoids are natural and synthetic derivatives of vitamin A (retinol). Related to these are carotenoids, which are a family of conjugated polyene molecules, found largely in fruit and vegetables. Certain carotenoids are converted to retinol. In addition, there are several variants of Vitamin E or Tocopherol. α-Tocopherol (alpha) is a potent antioxidant, scavenging reactive oxygen species and free radicals, and protecting against oxidative damage. These seemed like top picks and that was exactly what was done. Three phase III studies were completed involving primary cancer prevention: the α-Tocopherol, β-Carotene (ATBC) Study, the β-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET), and the Physicians Health Study. The data from these studies were VERY disturbing. Smokers(current and ex-smokers analyzed together as a high risk group) who received high-dose β-carotene supplementation had an INCREASED risk for lung cancer. Regarding Vitamin E or α-Tocopherol the only published, controlled randomized trial was the ATBC study which showed no effect on lung cancer incidence. But hold on, the problem with this study was that in food the main Vitamin E is GAMMA Tocopherol, whereas in this study it was ALPHA Tocopherol that was tested. Based on whole food epidemiologic studies where gamma-tocopherol is a major contributor to anti-oxidant potential, the goof may have been in which biochemical variant of Vitamin E was used. The lesson? We tried to outsmart Mother Nature in splitting out what we thought was the best and it failed.
Another famous example is the use of Selenium. Epidemiological studies suggest that Selenium (Se) has anticarcinogenic capacity and plays a role in cellular defense against oxidative stress. When split out from food and tested in the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) clinical trial, selenium had no effect on prostate cancer risk, but alpha tocopherol significantly increased prostate cancer risk by 17%. Again, this is not the GAMMA tocopherol that is the predominant form of Vitamin E in whole food. Perhaps the results would have been different but this will always remain the worry. Which forms and doses of micro-nutrients are safe and effective when compared to an anti-oxidant whole food diet which is chock full of beneficial synergies between nutrients?
Whole Food Diet to Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease
There are many other supplements that are highly touted with no data (or poor data) to back that up. We know even less about a multitude of isolated supplements packaged up and marketed as effective and safe. But instead of risking taking a supplement than can be a best draining your pocket book with no beneficial effect or at worst causing your cancer or cancer recurrence, think about what the world’s experts are saying. This video covers the gamut of what you need to know. Please note that I am not a big fan of the few areas of “conspiracy stuff” in this video, but overall it imparts a GREAT message.
Here is the take home message about supplements. Some may help and some may harm you. We do not have all the information required to tell you which is which, especially when you consider taking high doses of anything like that. Here is the good news, especially for couch potatoes with poor dietary habits. In the process of studying prevention of cancer, often unfortunately called “chemo-prevention” even when natural substances are used, we are at least getting to understand the biochemical pathways and the epigenetic effects of all of these substances and nutrients. This opens the door to exciting research in the prevention of cancer but we are still well away from outsmarting whole food approaches WHEN they are applied appropriately. In other words, we may well find “miracle supplement pills” that allow someone to poison themselves daily with fast food, cigarettes, sedentary lifestyle and still reduce their risk of cancer. However, it will be a LONG time before we are able to find something better than an integrative solid whole food and exercise cancer prevention program. So, rather than focusing on seeking the “magic” chemo-prevention agent, synthetic or natural, take a very long hard look at the benefits of whole food disease prevention.