Herbal remedies can be extremely harmful for cancer patients, a new Technion-Israel Institute of Technology study shows. The research, which focuses on cancer patients in the Middle East, is meant to help guide care providers when using herbal medicines for all patients the world over.

The study shows that nearly two-thirds of the herbal medicines used by cancer patients in the Middle East have potential health risks.

Professor Eran Ben-Arye. Photo by Office of the spokesperson, Technion
Professor Eran Ben-Arye. Photo by Office of the spokesperson, Technion

Researchers show turmeric may increase the toxic effects of certain chemotherapies, while gingko biloba and green teas could increase the risks of bleeding in some cancer patients. Other herbs including black cumin and turmeric can alter the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

In all, 29 of the 44 most popular herbal medicines used in 16 Middle Eastern countries—from Turkey to Tunisia—could pose one or more health risks to cancer patients in the region.

“In the Middle East, herbs are commonly used as part of traditional medicine, based on the impressive affinity of the people here to the herbal heritage that continuously prospers from the time of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,” said Professor Eran Ben-Arye, of the Technion.

The findings come from a survey conducted by Ben-Arye and colleagues, who asked more than 300 cancer care providers in the countries about the kinds of herbal medicines their patients were using. They found that 57 percent of the providers had patients who used at least one herbal remedy. Women and Muslim providers were more likely to report having patients who used the herbs.

Although many patients use the herbs without telling their physicians, in this study Ben-Arye and colleagues wanted to focus on cancer care providers who are aware of their patients’ herbal supplement use.

“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,” said Ben-Arye.

Patients most often turn to the herbs to enhance their quality of life and to cope better with the effects of their treatment, Ben-Arye said, rather than use them in an attempt to cure their cancers.

The highest rates of herbal medicine use in the study was recorded in Turkey, the Palestinian Authority area and Qatar. Stinging nettle, garlic, black cumin and turmeric were among the most used herbs, with other items such as camel’s milk and honey also making the list.

The researchers hope the new study will guide cancer care providers as they offer “open, non-judgmental” advice about the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicines.

The study was recently published in the journal Cancer.