Cancer and Malnutrition Diseases: Natural Remedies for Boosting Recovery

Malnutrition diseases can occur in people with cancer. Taking steps to treat the disorder will minimise your risk of complications.

A blue pen tip on a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questionnaire

Cancer-related malnutrition is different from malnutrition due to starvation. Usually, a cancerous tumour and its treatment are the primary causes of this disorder. Consequently, it can lead to lower treatment tolerance and a higher rate of mortality and malnutrition diseases.

Here are the steps a healthcare provider takes to diagnose the disorder and ways to manage its symptoms in people with cancer. 

Identifying the Signs of Cancer-Related Malnutrition

Woman lying on a bed with her eyes closed while placing her left hand on her forehead
Malnutrition can present as fatigue in people with cancer.

Malnutrition often presents as cachexia – a condition that sees muscles wasting away– in people with cancer. It can be difficult for your body to digest foods and absorb nutrients optimally if you have the disease. There are several reasons as to why this is so, such as: 

  • Treatment for cancer in the head, neck or gastrointestinal system – Intestines, Liver, Pancreas, Oesophagus, and Stomach – can impair your ability to swallow food 
  • The side effects of treatment, including diarrhoea, nausea, and projectile can make it difficult for you to eat 
  • Anxiety or depression can impact your nutritional intake by suppressing your appetite 

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) states that weakness and low immunity trigger illness. It relates to a quote from the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (huangdi neijing, 黄帝内经), which says, “Righteousness stores memory, evil cannot do it, and where evil gathers, its qi (vital energy) will be empty.” Simply put, pathogenic factors will not invade when there is sufficient qi in the body.

However, a congenital jing (essence) Deficiency, an extreme change in the external environmental or lifestyle factors can affect your body constitution, which may result in weakening qi . In addition, cancer cells may change the metabolism of glucose, protein, and fats in the body. Subsequently, these malnutrition causes can induce symptoms like fatigue, poor appetite, and weight loss.

 Diagnosing a lack of nutrition in people with cancer 

A dietitian is responsible for providing a full assessment of your nutritional status and determining if you are malnourished. They will then develop a customised eating plan to help maintain weight throughout cancer treatment. 

Firstly, the dietitian will study your medical history and note down your daily dietary consumption. Next, they will perform a physical assessment of your muscle and fat stores. They will take into account any recent changes to your appetite, energy levels and eating pattern. In some cases, suitable steps that will help lower your risk of malnutrition diseases are identified through your blood. 

Steps to Minimise Your Risk of Malnutrition Diseases 

A display of cheese, milk, yoghurt and eggs
Consuming eggs and dairy products can ensure a sufficient calorie and protein intake.

Contrary to the requirements of a healthy, balanced diet, a dietitian can propose an unconventional plan to remedy malnutrition. Meanwhile, TCM practitioners will aim to suggest modalities that help enhance the effects of chemotherapy and reduce the toxicity of treatment side effects.

“The goal of supportive treatment is to fortify your immunity and protect the vital organs. Widely used during this phase are qi-tonifying herbs. Adequate amounts of qi in the organs will also improve your appetite to a certain degree”, says Real Health Medical Chief Physician Chu I Ta. 

Consume a diet that meets your caloric and protein intake 

The best way to do this is to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Interestingly, the focus doesn’t need to be on consuming lots of fruits and vegetables. Rather, it should be on increasing your intake of foods that enable you to achieve your daily calorie and protein intake. Examples of these are eggs, desserts, snacks, and full-cream dairy products. If cancer treatment limits your eating ability, you can opt for foods that are easier to chew or swallow.

You are advised to consume supplemental nutrition beverages and let your dietitian or physician know if you’re using other health or herbal supplements. Doing this will help you avoid contraindications with cancer medication or treatment. 

Use herbal formulations 

The use of herbal formulations can boost the effects of chemotherapy and reduce the severity of treatment side effects. This is proven through the successful treatment of a man who experienced cachexia while undergoing cancer therapy. Physician Chu explains, “Mr. Lee was diagnosed with Stage Three colorectal cancer in June 2019.

Tto remove a tumour and partially remove his Colon, surgeons performed a colectomy in July 2019 . Mr. Lee also completed 12 cycles of chemotherapy from September 2019 to April 2020 using a combination of 5-Fu, oxaliplatin, and capecitabine. A significant drop in weight from 78kg to 62kg occurred within the first three months of therapy. He also experienced nausea, vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and dry mouth and skin.”  

Hence, Mr. Lee sought the help of a TCM practitioner. He was diagnosed with Kidney and SpleenqiDeficiency, phlegm, and Stasis Coagulation. His prescription formula included Astragalus (huang qi,黃芪), ginseng (ren shen, 人参), liquorice (gan cao,甘草), Poria (fu ling, 茯苓) and Chinese dates (hong zao, 红枣), amongst other ingredients. It helped improve his appetite, ease side effects and increase muscle mass and strength. 

Alternatively, the consumption of a Spleen qi-strengthening porridge can also help to stimulate your appetite and help you gain strength. This meal contains rice and herbal ingredients like astragalus, hawthorn (shan zha, 山楂), Chinese barley (da mai, 大麦), Chinese yam (huai shan, 淮山) and Chinese dates. You can prepare it with moderate amounts of egg, chicken or fish, and green vegetables. The best time to serve this porridge is during breakfast or lunch.

Specific cancer types can inevitably make you susceptible to malnutrition diseases. Treating the disorder can prevent complications that arise from a lack of nutrition. If you wish to support treatment, speak to an oncology-trained TCM practitioner. It can assure you that they’re safe for use without aggravating any side effects.

References

  1. Frontiers in oncology. 2021. Awareness of Cancer-Related Malnutrition and Its Management: Analysis of the Results From a Survey Conducted Among Medical Oncologists. [online] [Accessed 31 January 2022] 
  2. Better Health Channel. Cancer and malnutrition. [online] [Accessed 31 January 2022] 

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