Q: My sister-in-law was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and she says she’s going to drink all these herbal teas and go on a special anti-chemo diet to reduce the side effects of treatment. Smart? Not smart? -- Casey, S. Cincinnati
A: Your sister-in-law or anyone getting cancer treatment shouldn’t go on a special diet or take supplements until she talks to her oncologist.
Alternative and adjunct treatments that include music therapy, meditation, whatever exercise she can muster, group therapy, stress management techniques and acupuncture/acupressure are beneficial for someone going through cancer treatment. They ease stress and help keep a positive outlook, which is helpful for quality of life and perhaps to enhance treatment outcomes. But as far as adopting a special diet, using herbs or taking supplements goes, that needs to be cleared with her treatment team.
A recent study of herbs used in the Middle East by cancer patients found that many are directly toxic and others alter the pharmacodynamics of treatments so drugs don’t work like they’re supposed to. And a 2011 paper from Northwestern University says that common supplements such as acai berry, cumin, herbal tea, turmeric and long-term use of garlic may weaken or ramp up chemotherapy drugs. St. John’s wort may interfere with the efficacy of some chemo.
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On the other hand, if a patient’s levels of vitamin C or D, for example, dip too low after an initial treatment regimen, a doc may approve -- or insist on -- a vitamin supplement. Cancer treatment aims for a delicate balance between destruction of bad cells and preservation of healthy ones.
Bottom line? She should consider working with a dietician (a healthy weight and low sat-fat diet can help prevent recurrence), take advantage of in-house integrative treatment programs (massage, meditation, acupuncture, etc.) that many cancer treatment centers offer, and follow her oncologist’s recommendations.
Q: I am 60 and concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease. My grandfather and aunt had it. What can I do to reduce the risk? -- George L., Saugerties, New York
A: The idea of losing one’s ability to manage one’s own life is truly frightening. But although you’ve seen it in some family members, it isn’t necessarily in your future. Familial Alzheimer’s accounts for less than 5 percent of cases, and usually develops in folks before age 60. Did your relatives develop problems before age 60?
Other forms of the disease may be influenced in part by genes, but not caused by them. And you can modify many risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia by managing your stress response, upgrading your diet and getting more physical activity, as well as by controlling your exposure to toxins.
In fact, the latest research shows that lifestyle choices, that is to say specifically physical activity and education, are effective ways to protect cognitive powers well into old age. They help prevent chronic inflammation triggered by everything from obesity to gum disease (both of which are associated with dementia), keep oxygen levels high, neurons firing and blood flowing smoothly.
University of Miami researchers evaluated the heart health of more than 1,000 older folks (average age 72). They found that the better a person’s heart health, the faster his/her brain processing speed. Over time, heart-healthy folks had less decline in processing speed, memory, focusing, time management and other cognitive skills.
Canadian researchers, in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, report that your brain age can be a lot younger than your chronological age if you take flights of stairs every day and pursue educational activities. Brain age (determined by brain/gray matter volume) got almost one year younger than chronological age for each year of education and more than half a year younger for each additional flight of stairs climbed daily.
But all kinds of aerobic activity -- walking, gardening, dancing -- can protect cognition. Tracking 876 patients in the 30-year Cardiovascular Health Study, researchers found that virtually any type of aerobic activity can improve brain structure and cut the risk of Alzheimer’s in half!
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at firstname.lastname@example.org.