How to prevent radiation from destroying your immune system

June 08, 2010
Volume 07    |   Issue 24

For some people, radiation is not an option. It’s key to surviving breast cancer. The problem is that radiation damages the immune cells needed for survival. So what can you do that will maximize the benefits of radiation while minimizing its harm? Some people turn to antioxidants as part of their radiation protocol.

Is this safe? Is it effective? Doctors and studies disagree. Some say antioxidants are safe, while others are completely opposed to this practice. They insist that antioxidant supplements can reduce the benefits of radiation.

New research may have settled this debate. In fact, the issue could simply be a matter of timing.

A group of researchers at Henry Ford’s Department of Radiation Oncology made an unexpected discovery. They found that when you take antioxidants determines radiation’s safety and effectiveness. They exposed groups of mice to food either with or without antioxidants at three times. They gave them the antioxidants 12, 24, or 48 hours after radiation treatment.

One month later, none of the mice receiving food without antioxidants had survived. Of those that ate the food with antioxidants, one group had the greatest survival rate. The ones that had taken antioxidants 24 hours after treatment had the best survival rate. Only 4 out of 14 mice taking antioxidants soon after irradiation survived.

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Why did waiting one day after radiation exposure before giving protective antioxidants work so well? It gave the radiation enough time to kill cancer cells, but not too long to damage bone marrow cells — and destroy your immune system. The antioxidants don’t interfere with the radiation until after it’s done its job. And then it protects your immune system. These antioxidants included alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), vitamins C and E, and CoQ10. Other antioxidants could prove to be just as effective.

Radiation can save lives, but it can also damage immune cells. Whatever we damage with a substance like radiation needs to be repaired. Hopefully, this study will be part of a search for the optimal times to take protective nutrients when using more toxic therapies.

Meanwhile, if your oncologist tells you to stop taking antioxidants during your radiation treatments, show him or her this health alert. Antioxidants may not just play an important role in your cancer treatment. They may be critical to its success. But only if you take them at the right time.

Your voice of reason in Women's Health,


Stephen L. Brown, Andrew Kolozsvary, Jianguo Liu, Kenneth A. Jenrow, Samuel Ryu, and Jae Ho Kim, Antioxidant Diet Supplementation Starting 24 Hours After Exposure Reduces Radiation Lethality, Henry Ford Hospital, Department of Radiation Oncology, Detroit, Michigan 48202.

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