Natural Approaches to Chemotherapy Side Effects

Chemotherapy side effects are a common concern among people with cancer. Although chemotherapy aims to wipe out cancer cells and stop them from multiplying, it can also affect healthy cells, resulting in a number of symptoms.

alternative medicine for chemotherapy side effects
Ariel Skelley / Blend Images / Getty Images

Common Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Side effects and their severity vary from person to person and depend on the type and dose of chemotherapy. Some common chemotherapy side effects include:

  • Hair loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Mouth sores
  • Nerve and muscle problems (numbness, tingling, or pain)

Natural Remedies for Chemotherapy Side Effects

Although research on the potential benefits of natural remedies and alternative therapies is still quite limited, some studies suggest that certain remedies may be helpful in preventing or treating side effects. Here's a look at key findings related to common side effects:

Nausea

Some chemotherapy drugs can cause nausea and vomiting, which may start within the first few minutes to hours after treatment and last approximately 24 hours. In some cases, symptoms may start more than 24 hours after treatment and last a few days (known as delayed nausea and vomiting).

Ginger

Ginger is often used to alleviate nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy. For a research review published in Nutrition Reviews in 2013, scientists evaluated previously published studies on the effectiveness of an oral ginger extract and found mixed results. Due to such issues as differing ginger dosages and extracts and small study numbers, the authors concluded that "future studies are required to address the limitations identified before clinical use can be recommended."

Later studies published in the Annals of Oncology and Supportive Care in Cancer did not find that the addition of ginger helped to reduce nausea severity.

Inhaling the aroma of ginger essential oil may not alleviate chemotherapy-induced nausea in children, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing in 2018. Study participants inhaled ginger essential oil, a placebo, or a control and were assessed before and after chemotherapy. Ginger aromatherapy did not significantly decrease nausea.

Acupressure

For a research review published in 2017, scientists sized up 12 previously published studies (with a total of 1419 participants) and found some evidence that acupressure (a pressure point therapy commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine) could reduce the severity of acute and delayed nausea, but had no effect on the incidence or frequency of vomiting. It should be noted that only three of the assessed studies were considered high-quality, and the authors concluded that large, well-designed trials are needed.

A couple of recent studies found that acupressure may not reduce nausea. These include a study published in Cancer in 2018, in which acupressure wrist bands worn continuously on each day of chemotherapy and for up to seven days afterward did not improve nausea or vomiting in children receiving chemotherapy and standard medication.

Another study, published in 2013, examined the effects of acupressure wrist bands that apply pressure to the P6 acupressure point (on the inner forearm), compared to sham acupressure wrist bands or standard care. Although there were no statistically significant differences between the three in nausea, vomiting, or quality of life, the median nausea experience in people using both real and sham wristbands was lower than that in the standard care group. Interviews with a subset of the participants suggest that the participants found the wristbands (both real and sham) effective and helpful in managing their nausea.

In their conclusion, the study authors stated that "the study provided encouraging evidence in relation to an improved nausea experience and some indications of possible cost savings" and that it warrants further consideration of acupressure in practice and clinical trials.

Mouth Sores (Oral Mucositis)

Also known as oral mucositis, mouth sores or soreness in the mouth occurs due to the effects of the chemotherapy drugs on cells lining the inside of the mouth.

Oral Cryotherapy

The topical application of ice (known as "cryotherapy") is thought to prevent mouth sores in people receiving fluorouracil (5-FU) chemotherapy. Oral cryotherapy involves cooling the mouth with something cold like ice, ice-cold water, popsicles, or ice cream. The cold temperature constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the mouth, lessening the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach the mouth.

A review of 14 studies found that oral cryotherapy led to significant reductions in mucositis during 5-FU-based treatment for solid cancers. The evidence also suggests a reduction in severe oral mucositis after high-dose melphalan-based cancer treatment before Haematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (HSCT).

Studies involving fluorouracil have typically involved the application of cryotherapy for 5 to 10 minutes before administering the drug, for 15 to 35 minutes during administration, and up to 30 minutes after administration.

Although oral cryotherapy is a simple, low-cost intervention, it isn't right for everyone. For example, it may not be recommended for people taking certain types of chemotherapy, such as oxaliplatin. You should consult your doctor before trying oral cryotherapy.

Honey

For a research review published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2018, researchers examined previously published clinical trials on treatments for chemotherapy- and radiation-induced mucositis. The researchers found that honey decreased treatment interruptions and weight loss, and delayed the onset of oral mucositis. In addition, the study found zinc, glutamine, and topical vitamin E were promising treatments for oral mucositis.

Honey may promote cavities, however, so people are often advised to use a fluoride mouth rinse after each application and to follow proper oral hygiene. A type of honey known as manuka honey was not well-tolerated in some clinical trials, leading to nausea and vomiting.

Topical Vitamin E

An antioxidant, vitamin E, applied inside the mouth may reduce the severity of mucositis during cancer therapy, according to a review published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research in 2017. The study's authors looked at the use of topical vitamin E for the prevention or treatment of oral mucositis in people being treated for oral cancer with chemotherapy, concurrent chemo radiotherapy, and radiotherapy and Haematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (HSCT). They found a significant reduction in oral mucositis with all three types of cancer treatment.

Older studies have found that vitamin E helped to diminish existing mouth sores, but didn't help prevent the development of new mouth sores. Further research is needed.

Neuropathy

Certain chemotherapy drugs affect the nerves, causing pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness. Some people may feel these symptoms in their hands and feet, while others may experience muscle cramps and fatigue. Although less common, some people experience dizziness, blood pressure changes, or bowel and bladder symptoms.

Acupuncture

There's no sure way to prevent peripheral neuropathy from chemotherapy. A study published in the European Journal of Cancer in 2018, however, evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture in preventing peripheral neuropathy in women with stages I to III breast cancer receiving weekly paclitaxel. Acupuncture was well-tolerated and showed some effectiveness in reducing the incidence of high-grade chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy.

Treatment for Chemotherapy Side Effects

The National Cancer Institute urges people undergoing chemotherapy to talk with their doctors about their side effects and how best to manage them.

While some remedies may benefit people undergoing chemotherapy, others may interfere with standard treatment or cause harm when combined with chemotherapy. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care can have serious consequences. Therefore, if you're considering the use of any natural therapy in the treatment of chemotherapy side effects, it's extremely important to consult your healthcare providers.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Chemotherapy side effects. Updated February 15, 2016.

  2. American Cancer Society. Types of chemo-related nausea and vomiting. Updated February 13, 2017.

  3. Marx WM, Teleni L, McCarthy AL, et al. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting: a systematic literature review. Nutr Rev. 2013 Apr;71(4):245-54. doi:10.1111/nure.12016

  4. Thamlikitkul L, Srimuninnimit V, Akewanlop C, et al. Efficacy of ginger for prophylaxis of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients receiving adriamycin-cyclophosphamide regimen: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Support Care Cancer. 2017;25(2):459-464. doi:10.1007/s00520-016-3423-8

  5. Bossi P, Cortinovis D, Fatigoni S, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter study of a ginger extract in the management of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV) in patients receiving high-dose cisplatin. Ann Oncol. 2017;28(10):2547-2551. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdx315

  6. Evans A, Malvar J, Garretson C, Pedroja kolovos E, Baron nelson M. The use of aromatherapy to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea in children with cancer: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Pediatr Oncol Nurs. 2018;35(6):392-398. doi:10.1177/1043454218782133

  7. Miao J, Liu X, Wu C, Kong H, Xie W, Liu K. Effects of acupressure on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting-a systematic review with meta-analyses and trial sequential analysis of randomized controlled trials. Int J Nurs Stud. 2017;70:27-37. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2017.02.014

  8. Dupuis LL, Kelly KM, Krischer JP, et al. Acupressure bands do not improve chemotherapy-induced nausea control in pediatric patients receiving highly emetogenic chemotherapy: A single-blinded, randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2018;124(6):1188-1196. doi:10.1002/cncr.31198

  9. Molassiotis A, Russell W, Hughes J, et al. The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of acupressure for the control and management of chemotherapy-related acute and delayed nausea: Assessment of Nausea in Chemotherapy Research (ANCHoR), a randomised controlled trial. Health Technol Assess. 2013;17(26):1-114. doi:10.3310/hta17260

  10. Riley P, Glenny AM, Worthington HV, Littlewood A, Clarkson JE, Mccabe MG. Interventions for preventing oral mucositis in patients with cancer receiving treatment: oral cryotherapy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(12):CD011552. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011552.pub2

  11. Thomsen M, Vitetta L. Adjunctive treatments for the prevention of chemotherapy- and radiotherapy-induced mucositis. Integr Cancer Ther. 2018;17(4):1027-1047. doi:10.1177/1534735418794885

  12. Nagi R, Patil DJ, Rakesh N, Jain S, Sahu S. Natural agents in the management of oral mucositis in cancer patients-systematic review. J Oral Biol Craniofac Res. 2018;8(3):245-254. doi:10.1016/j.jobcr.2017.12.003

  13. Nagi R, Patil DJ, Rakesh N, Jain S, Sahu S. Natural agents in the management of oral mucositis in cancer patients-systematic review. J Oral Biol Craniofac Res. 2018;8(3):245-254. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2017/26845.9905

  14. El-housseiny AA, Saleh SM, El-masry AA, Allam AA. The effectiveness of vitamin "E" in the treatment of oral mucositis in children receiving chemotherapy. J Clin Pediatr Dent. 2007;31(3):167-70.

  15. Sung L, Tomlinson GA, Greenberg ML, et al. Serial controlled N-of-1 trials of topical vitamin E as prophylaxis for chemotherapy-induced oral mucositis in paediatric patients. Eur J Cancer. 2007;43(8):1269-75. doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2007.02.001

  16. American Cancer Society. What Is peripheral neuropathy? Updated January 8, 2019.

  17. Bao T, Seidman AD, Piulson L, et al. A phase IIA trial of acupuncture to reduce chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy severity during neoadjuvant or adjuvant weekly paclitaxel chemotherapy in breast cancer patients. Eur J Cancer. 2018;101:12-19. doi:10.1016/j.ejca.2018.06.008

  18. National Cancer Institute. Side effects of cancer treatment. Date unknown.

Additional Reading