Can natural medicine play a role in cancer treatment?

can natural medicine play a role in cancer treatment image

In recent months I have been asked my opinion on the role that nutrition and natural medicine can have on cancer treatment. As nutritionists we often find ourselves in a position of trying to help prevent disease, but on occasions disease can occur. This then begs the question, what roles can nutrition and natural medicine play in the treatment of diseases such as cancer, and can they be used alongside more conventional treatments to enhance the recovery or final outcome?

Just this past week, I decided to look into some of the research and considerations. In doing so I came across a book called ‘How to prevent and treat cancer with natural medicine’ by Dr Michael Murray (1). This is someone who I have followed, who has worked closely with Dr Joseph Pizzorno, who I have seen lecture twice this past year.

Much of what I am going to write about is a more condensed version of some of the key recommendations from Dr Michael Murray. I am not here to reinvent the wheel but to offer information to the general public that is rarely spoken about by conventional approaches. The interesting thing for me as a nutritionist is the wealth of evidence available for natural treatment strategies and strategies to help support the body through treatment such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Consider that this book was also written 12 years ago and further research has been completed in recent years looking at how natural compounds can impact cancer outcomes, some of which I will be looking into in future articles.

In a time where we should be doing everything possible to find the most appropriate treatment for that individual and supporting their health to its highest levels, we find ourselves in a society where some information is either withheld, not made available to the general public or is simply not taught to those who are put in primary care for those diagnosed with cancer.

What are the goals of cancer treatment with natural medicine?

1. Support the whole person

You are not your disease. Many people take ownership of their disease, which is something that should be avoided. Natural medicine plays a role in treating the individual and not the disease.

2. Take away factors that support cancer development

Elimination of a harmful diet and lifestyle.

3. Utilise natural medicines to treat cancer and prevent reoccurrence

Contrary to popular belief natural medicine and nutrition can play a direct role on inhibiting tumor growth, boosting the immune system, inhibiting formation of new blood vessels to the tumor, and promoting the natural death of cancer cells.

4. Offer support for conventional treatment

A crucial role of nutrition and natural medicine is its ability to help boost the effect of conventional therapies, while reducing their symptoms. It can also play a crucial role after post treatment in reducing the likelihood of recurrence of future mutations.

Conventional medicine would suggest we have probably 3 avenues of treatment, surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Undoubtedly these can be the best options available for certain individuals in certain circumstances, but below I am going to outline some considerations in the nutrition field for those already diagnosed with cancer.

Whey Protein and Glutamine

Not only do cancer patients generally require increased levels of protein in their diet, especially if undergoing treatment like chemotherapy, but it has been shown that whey protein and glutamine can play a direct role when it comes to cancer treatments.

Glutamine specifically acts as an important fuel source for white blood cells (immune cells), helping prevent suppression of the immune system caused by chemotherapy, increasing energy levels, boosting overall immune functions and fighting infections (2,3,4,5,6).

One of the best ways to obtain good levels of glutamine is through whey protein. Not only does whey protein contain high levels of glutamine, but also contains fractions and peptides that help boost glutathione.

Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that also helps enzymes rid the body of toxic substances. It has been suggested that cancer cells actually contain high levels of glutathione and would suggest why they withstand such aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy.

Studies indicate though that whey protein selectively depletes cancer cells of their glutathione, thus making them more susceptible to cancer treatment, whilst also inhibiting cancer cell growth and reducing tumor burden (7,8,9). It is also suggested that the glutathione is robbed from the cancer cells and fed to the normal cells, helping protect them from the effects of aggressive cancer treatments.

Take home point 1 – Take whey protein.

Use 20-30g of a high quality whey protein concentrate twice daily as part of a shake made with fresh fruits and veggies. Check out my Smoothie Recipes that can be used as part of a breakfast or a snack.

Optimal Hydration

Water is required to help detoxify the body of toxins and debris from dead cells and drugs in the system during treatment. Without adequate water the side effects can be exacerbated.

A lack of water can easily lead to fatigue, muscle spasms and cramps, irregular heartbeat and so on. Basic tips include:

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages where possible.
  • Each lots of fruits and veggies that are water dense.
  • Drink your bodyweight in kg x 0.033 to give your total in litres for the day.
  • Eat lots of soups and stews, these can not only be nutrient dense but also supply a decent amount of water as well. Check out some of our one-pot recipes, drinks and broths in our Recipe Section.
  • Make your own frozen ice lollies with weak fruit juice and water or choose sorbets as a dessert.
  • Spread your water intake throughout the day.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea can be a major side effect of cancer treatments and thus dehydration may occur. A homemade electrolyte drink may be beneficial using some electrolyte powder, a little fruit juice or honey with some water.

Take home point 2 – Stay hydrated.

Juicing and greens drinks

Ordinarily juicing is something that I recommend with caution, however during the treatment of cancer, it can be a very helpful way in meeting caloric demands and supplying an abundance of nutrition, particularly when struggling with nausea and a loss of appetite.

When taking the whey protein I would add in a variety of fruits and vegetables to make a greens drink smoothie with high levels of bioavailable whey protein.

Adding ginger can also help alleviate loss of appetite and nausea and has been used for morning sickness with great success for many years.

You can also use greens drink powder mixes to try and add some additional phytonutrient and antioxidant support.

Take home point 3 – Don’t be afraid to add juiced vegetables and fruits to your diet.

Proteolytic Enzymes

This is a group of enzymes that breakdown proteins into smaller units. These enzymes include pancreatic proteases chymotrypsin and trypsin, bromelain (pineapple enzyme), papain (papaya enzyme), serratia peptidase (silk worm enzyme).

Proteolytic enzymes appear to have a number of valuable anti cancer effects:

  • Increase the manufacture of cancer blocking antiproteases
  • Inhibit angiogenesis and metastasis
  • Enhance immune response
  • Promote differentiation of cancer cells


Not only that but they may also play a role in fighting against viral infections as a result of immune suppression from certain cancer treatments. (11)

Bromelain specifically has been shown to have anti cancer effects in test tube and animal studies, so may be helpful in the fight against cancer in humans (12). Human research indicates it might directly activate key immune functions often deficient in cancer patients. The best natural source is pineapple, specifically the core of the pineapple.

Take home point 4 – Consider a proteolytic enzyme formula or at least chew on some pineapple core.


Curcumin has to be one of the most exciting natural substances that can be used in the treatment and prevention of cancer. Curcumin is an extract from the spice turmeric and has been shown to be beneficial in all stages of cancer formation: initiation, promotion and progression (13-17).

Curcumin is said to:

  1. Inhibit the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines.
  2. Enhance the body’s production of cancer fighting compounds such as glutathione.
  3. Promotes liver detoxification of cancer causing compounds.
  4. Prevents the overproduction of cyclooxygenase 2 (cox-2), an enzyme that can contribute to the development of tumors.
  5. The inhibition of tumor growth by curcumin is said to come from several pathways, including:
    • Reduces epidermal growth factor receptor sites – two-thirds of all cancers produce an abundance of these types of receptors increasing their likelihood of cell proliferation. (9)
    • Inhibiting angiogenesis – Fibroblast growth factor is a protein that promotes the formation of new blood vessels to feed the growing tumor. Curcumin has been shown to inhibit production of this growth factor.

Check out the TED talk below on angiogenesis and how certain foods and food substances might be able to starve cancer:

ted talks starve cancer

  • Inhibiting nuclear factor kappa beta (NF-kb) – This protein that cancers produce to block the signals commanding it to stop proliferating. (9)
  • Increasing the expression of nuclear p53 protein. This protein is essential for normal cell suicide, thus helping promote the cancerous cells to destroy themselves (9)
  • Inhibiting growth promoting enzymes

Numerous test tube studies have shown the effectiveness of curcumin fighting against certain tumors (18-22) A human trial has also demonstrated benefits of curcumin in certain cancers where standard treatment had not been successful. It has also be suggested it is useful alongside treatment such as chemotherapy.

Take home point 5 – Consume regular amounts of turmeric or the extract cur cumin.


This is the most common flavonoid in the human diet and has been shown to be the most effective at inhibiting tumor growth (23-24).

Quercetin helps prevent the cancer cells from dividing and works to suppress the production of mutant p53 proteins to nearly undetectable levels, helping reduce cell growth and cancer (25).

Like curcumin it also inhibits growth-promoting enzymes known as tyrosine kinases. These proteins when activated send signals to the nuclease, telling cancer cells to divide.

In experimental groups quercitin has demonstrated significant antitumor activity against a wide range of cancers and also helps enhance the effects of chemotherapy, whilst reducing the side effects (26-39).

Quercitin occurs in highest abundance naturally in colourful plant based foods, so a diet containing high levels of various coloured fruits and vegetables would be recommended.

Take home point 6 – Consider a quercitin supplement and eat quercitin rich foods (eat a rainbow of colours).

Maitake D-fraction

Maitake mushrooms are known to have immune enhancing effects and research by Hiroaki Nanba of Japan discovered that miatake extracts demonstrated more pronounced anti-tumour activity in animal tests than other mushroom extracts (40).

It was a specific component of the mushroom extract, which he called Maitake D-fraction, which had the ability to stimulate white blood cells known as macrophages. These specialised white blood cells are known as the big eaters and engulf foreign particles, including cancer cells (41).

Four primary mechanisms by which maitake can help fight cancer have been identified. (41-44)

  1. Protects healthy cells from becoming cancerous.
  2. Enhances the immunes systems ability to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
  3. Helps to regain control of cell division and programme cell death.
  4. Helps to prevent the spread of cancer.

Take home point 7 – Look for Maitake D-fraction.

Modified Citrus Pectin (MCP)

MCP is obtained from the peel and pulp of citrus fruits. MCP appears to reduce the risk of metastasis (spread of cancerous cells from one tumor to other sites in the body (45-47). MCP appears to bind to galectins (a protein that covers the surface of cells allowing cancer cells to clump together). By binding to galectins it helps prevent the cancer cells ability to clump and spread.


Natural treatments for cancer are always going to be a contentious issue. Undeniably so there is a lot of information out there that is just not available to the general public or hard to find amongst the scientific jargon or unscientifically validated natural cures that tend to give natural medicines a bad name.

Unfortunately there are other political reasons why this information is less available to the general public and for these reasons is why you will rarely see the potential cancer inhibiting effects of compounds such as those written above on the 5 o’clock news or in the newspaper.

We are unfortunately programmed into thinking that if we get diagnosed with cancer then our only hope of survival is radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery. Of course for some people that may be the best option, but even in those cases we can use natural medicine to both enhance the effectiveness of the treatment and also prevent the severity of the side effects.

Ultimately you must choose a course of treatment that you are both comfortable with and should always have the support of a qualified medical professional.

In an ideal world I see medical professionals and nutritionists working along side each other for the good of the patient, rather than one side assuming their method of treatment is superior to the other.

I hope you have found this article beneficial. Like I said at the start of the article this is mostly information taken from Dr Michael Murrays Book and although this book is 12 years old now this can be a great starting point for those interested in preventing or helping to treat cancer through natural means.

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