Enhancing the Immune System
A range of CAM therapies have been shown to boost immune function in cancer patients. These include:
Fermented Wheat Germ. Neutropenia, a condition characterized by low numbers of white blood cells known as neutrophils, is a complication of chemotherapy that leaves patients dangerously susceptible to infections (Mego M et al 2005). Supplementing with fermented wheat germ extract during conventional treatment reduces the occurrence of neutropenia (Garami M et al 2004).
Garlic supplementation boosts immune function in cancer patients (Patya M et al 2004) by improving the function of natural killer cells and lymphocytes (Hassan ZM et al 2003; Patya M et al 2004; Tang Z et al 1997).
Herbal Medicines such as echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus strengthen the immune system and may be beneficial to cancer patients (Block KI et al 2003; Suh SO et al 2002). Indeed, red ginseng boosts the immune system of gastric cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy after surgery (Suh SO et al 2002). Patients taking red ginseng had significantly higher overall survival (76 percent) than non-supplementing subjects (39 percent) at five years (Suh SO et al 2002).
Mushroom Extracts increase the activity of natural killer cells in gynecological cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (Ahn WS et al 2004). A Ganoderma lucidum polysaccharide extract known as ganopoly (1800 mg, three times daily before meals for 12 weeks) boosted natural killer cell numbers in advanced-stage cancer patients (Gao Y et al 2003).
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 68 patients with advanced (stage III or IV) non-small cell lung cancer, polysaccharide peptides (PSP) isolated from the mushroom Coriolus versicolor (340 mg, three times daily for four weeks) significantly improved blood leukocyte and neutrophil counts, serum IgG and IgM, and percentage of body fat compared to the control group (Tsang KW et al 2003).
In a case series of eight patients with various cancers (mostly stage II-IV), a combination of maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa) MD-fraction and whole maitake powder resulted in a positive response in 23 of 36 cancer patients. Cancer regression or significant symptom improvement was observed in 69 percent of breast cancer patients, 63 percent of lung cancer patients, and 58 percent of liver cancer patients. The study found a less than 10 percent to 20 percent improvement in leukemia, stomach cancer, and brain cancer patients. In addition, when maitake was taken in addition to chemotherapy, immune-competent cell activities were enhanced 1.2 times to 1.4 times compared to chemotherapy alone (Kodama N et al 2002).
Immunonutrition. Patients who undergo surgery to remove a tumor mass often suffer depressed immune systems following surgery, which slows their recovery and leaves them vulnerable to infection (Ates E et al 2004). Different forms of nutrition designed to boost the immune system assist the recovery of cancer patients after surgery (Ates E et al 2004; Braga M et al 2002; Song JX et al 2002). For example, patients administered nutrients containing fatty acids (with the aid of a feeding tube directly into the stomach) have a more rapid recovery of immune cell numbers (Ates E et al 2004). Oral supplements enriched with arginine and omega-3 fatty acids improved immune recovery and reduced infection rates (Braga M et al 2002; Song JX et al 2002).
Melatonin is a hormone with immune regulatory activities. Most cancer patients have low levels of melatonin (Bartsch C et al 1999). Melatonin supplements (10 mg a day) improve immune function in patients suffering from a variety of cancers, including gastric, renal, prostate, and bladder cancers, without any apparent adverse effects (Neri B et al 1998). Clinical studies support melatonin’s value, demonstrating that supplements of 20 mg a day can improve immune function in cancer patients, predominantly by enhancing the immunity driven by the two chief anti-tumor messengers, interleukin-2 and interleukin-12 (Lissoni P 2000, 2002).
Probiotic Bacteria. When cancer patients with neutropenia (low neutrophil counts) exhibit symptoms of infection such as fever, the condition of neutropenia is referred to as febrile neutropenia (Mego M et al 2005). The movement of bacteria through the intestinal lining is partly responsible for febrile neutropenia (Mego M et al 2005). Interestingly, scientists have demonstrated that colonizing the intestine with friendly probiotic bacteria reduced (by virtue of competition) infection from febrile neutropenia-causing bacteria (Mego M et al 2005).
Relaxation Techniques. Perhaps not surprisingly, clinical studies have now shown that humor and laughter have a positive effect on the immune system, characterized by increased numbers of natural killer cells (Bennett MP et al 2003; Berk LS et al 2001; Christie W et al 2005; Takahashi K et al 2001).
Other techniques such as massage and meditation that are designed to foster relaxation also improve immune system function in cancer patients (Hernandez-Reif M et al 2004, 2005; Hidderley M et al 2004). In fact, breast cancer patients participating in a massage therapy program had increased numbers of natural killer cells and lymphocytes (Hernandez-Reif M et al 2004, 2005).
Vitamin E. Short-term supplementation with high-dose (750 mg) vitamin E increases both the number and activity of lymphocytes in patients with advanced colorectal cancer (Malmberg KJ et al 2002). In addition, supplementation with vitamin E during chemotherapy reduces the loss of white blood cells (neutropenia) that is associated with chemotherapy (Branda RF et al 2004).