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What’s Up with Antioxidants and Cancer?

By Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES August 20, 2014Pearls of Wisdom Blog

As a cancer survivor, you hear it all the time:

“Eat more foods with vitamin A.”
“Take Selenium and Vitamin D capsules.”
“Start your day with Vitamin C.”
“Beta-carotene is the best defense!”

These nutrients you hear so much about are the most popular and most powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants are thought to give you an edge in preventing cancer or recurrence. They provide this edge by helping to naturally interrupt the flow of oxygen to cancer cells, which those cells require to divide and spread.

The idea of using antioxidants to help prevent or slow the growth of cancer cells is long held. Linus Pauling (1901-1994), an influential chemist, studied human cells extensively. He specifically detailed how cells use oxygen to fuel their growth. Linus’s long-accepted theory is that interrupting cell oxidation using antioxidant compounds is one way to defeat the multiplication of cancer cells.

But a recent article released in The New England Journal of Medicine has ignited new discussions among healthcare providers and survivors.

The July 2014 article, The Promise and Perils of Antioxidants for Cancer Patients, introduces a new theory on the use of antioxidants in cancer-healthy diets. Specifically, the article suggests that taking antioxidant supplements may actually not be helpful in reducing cancer. The article reviews related clinical studies of mice and people that suggest that cancer cells, which are rapidly dividing, may not be inhibited or slowed by the use of additional antioxidants by patients, contrary to Pauling’s earlier studies.

The article’s authors, David Tuveson, MD, PhD and Navdeep Chandel, PhD, state that more research is needed in multiple areas to validate and deepen the early perspectives in their research.

So what does this mean for you? Not much for now. We do recommend these three things:

1) Continue to follow your healthcare team’s advice about antioxidants use for your specific cancer and treatment plan. (For example, if you are a prostate survivor and your doctor tells you not take selenium, follow his advice. Or, if you are taking specific chemotherapy agents, make sure to follow your doctor’s advice on using antioxidants. Some chemotherapies work better without antioxidant supplements.)

2) Remember that it’s always best to get good nutrition through the foods and beverages that you consume, not through dietary supplements.

3) If you have questions about your intake of antioxidants, ask your doctor, nurse or dietician. Your healthcare team is always watching for new discoveries on how antioxidant supplements effect specific forms of cancer.

Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Author Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

Nutrition Educator Margaret Martin is a Licensed Dietitian and Nutritionist in the State of Tennessee as well as a Certified Diabetes Educator. Margaret graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics and received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition Science & Public Health from the University of Tennessee. With more than 10 years of experience in Clinical Nutrition, Margaret has also worked in the insurance industry with WellPoint Inc. and Blue Cross Blue Shield providing telephonic nutrition consultations, service assistance, and web-based nutrition education. In her free time Margaret volunteers with the American Lung Association’s annual “Lung Force Walk" in Middle Tennessee. She belongs to the Oncology Nutrition & Diabetes Care and Education Dietetic Practice Groups of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More posts by Margaret Martin, RD, MS, LDN, CDCES

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