My patients ask me in person and my followers ask on line, what are the very best cancer fighting supplements out there? Which supplements really fight cancer? How much should I take of what? Some even bring a bag full of various mixes of supplements and botanicals for me to review with them, hoping to leave with “THE” answer.

Well, the truth behind the best supplements is very far from visiting the local vitamin shop in most situations. There was a gentleman, an ancient Greek physician who is said to be the father of Western medicine. He lived over 2,000 years ago and, among other things, said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. His name was Hippocrates and the best modern research in the world still rings true to that comment. To this day, even though we can study things to the sub-molecular level, whole food contains wondrous healing synergies that we are only beginning to understand. It is going to be while before we become smarter than Mother Nature by artificially splitting out vitamins and other micro-nutrients and reassembling them with human concoctions.

Unfortunately, the very thing that ails us as a society addicted to pharmacologic prescription pill popping spills over into “natural health”. Only, there is nothing natural about it. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that Big Pharma is a multi-trillion dollar industry that is focused on the image of wellness through pill popping for everything. Standard mainstream medicine has embraced this way too much. However, it is an integrative medicine truth that in some cases, at least for a while, such medications can be lifesavers. Nevertheless, this is not something you want to depend upon for true health as you will never achieve it that way. So what makes you think that popping fistfuls of various “natural” supplements is any better? The Big Nutra, or supplements biz, is alive and well and is a multi multi billion dollar industry in its own right. The problem is that this industry, in contradistinction to Big Pharma, Big Nutra is hardly regulated at all and marketing glitz VERY often trumps science. Enough said on the “politics” of taking human-made substances, drugs or supplements, but lets move on.

You don’t want to take synthetic drugs when you can avoid them, at least in the long run. By the same token you don’t really want to take synthetic mixes of supplements either. In some cases this pharmaco-nutrient therapy can be very harmful and is grounded in the general belief that more of something is better. We know this not to be the case, with cancer CAUSATION as an extreme example. But what about “natural” supplements? Some manufacturers sell what are coined “whole food vitamins”, which are way more expensive and offer little proof that they are any better. Theoretically they may be better because they are concentrated nutrients from whole foods rather than synthetics. However the process of stripping the nutrients out and concentrating them always uses some proprietary methods which might be heating or enzymes or some other degradation. It is a black box of questions and at the very least separates out micro-nutrients from fiber and may be breaking the synergies required between nutrients to be maximally effective, according to Mother Nature’s plan. We simply do not know and guessing, glitzy marketing and testimonials are just not the answer.

With respect to cancer specifically, all of the best data in the world points to whole foods FIRST as being the answer to this question. If you want to go in-depth, download and read the World Cancer Research Foundation’s report. Rather than trying to outsmart Mother Nature with pseudo-science, rat studies that may not apply to humans, and theoretical benefits, the leading minds around the world agree on this principle. Cancer prevention, both primary and secondary (i.e. prevention of recurrence) is best accomplished through solid dietary management of macro-nutrients (i.e. best mix and sources of carbs, proteins and fats) and micro-nutrients (i.e. supplements, vitamins, minerals and some healing botanicals). Furthermore, there is a whole body of evidence which is related to how food is prepared (i.e. raw vs steamed vs broiled). The bottom line is that creating, honing and optimizing a cancer fighting kitchen is a far better use of time than finding out what stores carry the best vitamin pills. This is a topic for many upcoming reviews and posts.

Here is a great short and to the point video from Dana Farber Cancer Institute regarding “Food First” as an integrative anti-cancer strategy.

Having said all of the above, there may be a few exceptions. First of all, if it is just IMPOSSIBLE for you to follow a solid anti-cancer diet plan, work with a nutritionist of dietitian to ensure you have the basics covered with supplements. This is VERY inferior, but will keep you out of more trouble. Second, there are a few supplements that are notoriously lacking even in a good diet. If you are following a primarily plant based whole food diet, make sure you are getting enough B vitamins. Calcium is also sometimes hard to manage with a combined goal being 1500 to 2000mg per day from diet and supplementary sources. Finally, and most importantly, Vitamin D. This last one is crucial to your anti-cancer battle and is deficient even in sun belt areas. Ask your doctor to measure your blood level and focus on attaining a level above 35-40ng/mL (90-100nmol/L).

All of the above is meant to cover why whole food is a better source of micro-nutrients than concocting supplement packs. However, if you need specific help there is certainly a need for targeted supplementation. For example, rather than taking potentially addicting and side-effect prone prescription sleeping pills, you may benefit from melatonin supplementation. This is highly individualized and is part of a good patient centric integrative oncology program.