Side Effects of Radiation: Natural Protection from Fermented Foods

Probiotics, the healthy bacteria found in yoghurt and other fermented foods protect the lining of the digestive tract from damage due to radiation therapy. Studies show that when healthy bacteria are taken orally BEFORE radiation therapy, there is actually less damage to the delicate lining of the intestines, less side effects for cancer patients.

When the lining of the intestines, which only one cell layer thick,  is damaged by radiation, inflammation occurs. This is officially called “radiation enteritis“(literally inflamed intestines). The most common symptom is diarrhea, although there can also be pain, bloating, cramping, excess mucus and even bleeding. Not only is this an uncomfortable cancer treatment side effect, but this also leads to poor absorption of nutrients so important to health and healing and normal immune function. Additionally there may be a loss of fluids and essential minerals such as potassium that can further compromise normal digestion and elimination. Many patients with this side effect feel quite weak and lethargic and become averse to eating because it is so uncomfortable to put food into a reactive and inflamed digestive tract.

There have been several studies showing that not only do probiotics given in advance of treatment exert a protective function, meaning there is less damage overall, but these healthy bacteria can also promote the repair of the delicate lining during and after radiation. The presence of healthy bacteria regulates the normal immune response in your gut.

Lactobacillus bacteria are found most commonly in cultured dairy products such as yoghurt and kefir. These are “friendly” bacteria that normally live in our digestive, urinary, and genital systems without causing disease.

While a nutritional dose of friendly bacteria can be found in fermented foods, a more concentrated dose can be found in high quality nutritional supplements. This may be the easiest way to ingest these healthy bacteria when you are suffering from  diarrhea induced by cancer treatments such as radiotherapy.

Lactobacillus supplements are often labelled “Acidophilus” (the name of one species of these friendly bacteria.) Other species such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei have also been studied demonstrating protection and repair of the lining of the digestive tract. Another bacterium, Bifidus, did not show this protective effect in cancer patients.

A fresh cup of plain yoghurt (unsweetened) will supply the digestive tract with healthy bacteria. Be sure to use unsweetened products. That means no artificial sweeteners as well. Sugars promote the growth of unhealthy organisms in the gut and artificial sweeteners are mildly toxic chemicals to be avoided.

If you have sensitivity or allergy to cow’s milk dairy products you may want to choose goat or sheep yoghurt or even coconut milk or almond milk products cultured with acidophilus instead. Most cultures in the world include fermented foods in traditional diets because these friendly bacteria are so important to human health. Lactobacillus is also found in miso, natto and tempeh which are fermented soy products found in Japan, China and Asian diets.   Kim Chee from Korea  and Sauerkraut from northern European cultures are fermented vegetable dishes, often made with cabbage, radishes and carrots. All of these foods are sources of health promoting friendly bacteria.

Supporting and nourishing digestive function is a central part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Herbal medicines, therapeutic foods and acupuncture are used to restore and enhance the health of the digestive tract.  This is considered essential to the ability to gain benefit from foods and herbs and is often planned as the first step in restorative courses of treatment.

There is a traditional Japanese kitchen remedy made by dissolving soothing kudzu root (arrowroot may be substituted)  in hot water to make a thick and mucilaginous broth to which is added pickled umeboshi (sour plum) paste and fermented soybean paste full of healthy bacteria. Similarly congee is a traditional convalescent food for dysentery and diarrhea from India made from slow cooked soft basmati rice made with ghee (clarified butter), cardamom, cinnamon and ginger.  Before serving a small amount of fresh yoghurt is added.  Not only is this an easy to digest source of calories and nutrients, including soothing anti-inflammatory digestive herbs plus healthy therapeutic bacteria.

The Jade Institute has a wonderful article describing fermented foods of cultures from all over the world. Included are easy to prepare vegetarian, vegan and non-dairy recipes to make your own at home!

As mentioned above, an more convenient option, as well as a very concentrated dose of lactobacillus is found in high quality probiotic supplements available in powder or capsules.  Always consult a knowledgable health care provider when choosing to use foods or supplements to manage side effects of cancer treatment.

While there are many ways to treat side effects of cancer treatments naturally after the fact, the use of probiotic healthy bacteria before treatment has been shown to reduce side effects in the first place. We would hope that medical doctors who are radiation specialists will regularly inform their patients to take lactobacillus acidophilus before their treatments as a matter of excellent patient care.

The Jade Institute also notes that Lactic acid fermented foods also have additional benefits which include:

  • Help to maintain healthy intestinal flora by greatly increasing the numbers of beneficial microorganisms
  • Prevent colonization of pathogenic organisms
  • Preserve nutrients and break them down into easily digestible form, increasing the nutritive value of foods due to improved bioavailability
  • Create new cultures that increase B vitamins such as folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, biotin, and B12
  • Enhance the absorption of minerals, particularly calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and copper
  • Neutralize toxins, such as phytic acid, that block mineral absorption

Furthermore, having a healthy ecology in your intestines is one of the keys to a robust immune system and normal hormone metabolism. Lactobacillus bacteria communicate your immune system and positively alter levels of inflammation.