Nettles, turmeric and camel milk are just a few of the herbs and foodstuffs used to boost health in the Middle East, as they have done throughout history. Cancer patients, however, may be endangering their health by supplementing chemotherapy with some of the herbs and spices, says a new report published in the journal Cancer.

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Stinging nettles are a traditional herbal remedy.

Herbal medicine goes back a long way in the Middle East, and it continues to be popular as part of traditional medicine. Its heritage can be traced back thousands of years to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Assistant Prof. Eran Ben-Arye, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and colleagues surveyed cancer care providers, from Turkey to Tunisia, about the kinds of herbal medicines their patients use.

The team provided oncology health care providers from 16 Middle Eastern countries with a 17-item questionnaire that asked them to list five herbal products that their cancer patients use.

The 339 providers who completed the questionnaire identified 44 herbal and 3 non-herbal nutritional supplements.

Findings showed that 57% of providers had patients who use at least one herbal remedy. Women and Muslim providers were more likely to report that their patients use herbs.

Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Qatar reported some of the highest rates of herbal medicine use.

Stinging nettle, garlic, black cumin and turmeric feature among the most commonly used. Other items, such as camel’s milk and honey, are also popular.

However, 29 of the 44 most popular herbal medicines are deemed to pose one or more health risks to patients who are undergoing cancer treatment. There are concerns that 15 common items could trigger herb-drug interactions, 18 herbs might have direct toxic effects and seven in vitro tests suggest they could increase the response to chemotherapy.

Turmeric may increase the toxic effects of certain chemotherapies, while gingko biloba and green teas could make bleeding more likely in some cancer patients. Black cumin and turmeric, among others, may alter the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

The researchers of the current study focused specifically on professionals working with cancer patients who are aware of their patients’ use of herbal supplements.

Cancer care providers in the Middle East tend to be skeptical about these alternative medicines, and patients tend not to consult with a physician about the herbs they use.

However, the study suggests there is support among providers for having a physician consultant on a patient’s cancer care team who can discuss the effectiveness and safety of herbal remedies when used alongside conventional cancer treatments.

Ben-Arye suggests that patients, too, would appreciate this.

He says:

In the majority of cases, patients seek to combine the best of the two worlds and do not perceive herbal medicine as a real alternative to modern oncology care.”

The team notes that patients tend to use the herbs to enhance their quality of life and to cope better with the effects of their treatment, rather than expecting them to cure their cancers.

The researchers hope the new study will help cancer care providers to offer “open, non-judgmental” advice about the safe and effective use of herbal medicines.

Ben-Arye notes: “The majority of patients would hope to share their experience and questions of herbal options with their health care provider ‘at home’ within the oncology department rather than ‘outside’ where non-professionals and sometimes charlatans suggest miraculous potions.”

Medical News Today recently reported that another alternative treatment, acupuncture, can bring relief to people with fibromyalgia.