Practitioners of Gerson therapy believe that cancer is caused by an accumulation of toxic substances in the body. They recommend a special diet including high carbohydrate and potassium intake, no sodium or fat, low animal protein, supplementation with exogenous digestive enzymes, and coffee enemas aimed at detoxifying the body and stimulating metabolism. However, available scientific evidence does not support use of Gerson therapy.
The strict dietary recommendations can cause severe nutritional deficiencies, and excessive use of coffee enemas can cause sepsis, dangerous electrolyte deficiencies, and death.
A recent trial of the closely related Gonzalez therapy found that pancreatic cancer patients on standard chemotherapy survived three times longer and had better quality of life than those who chose the Gonzalez regimen (pancreatic enzymes, nutritional supplements, detoxification, and organic diet).
—Barrie Cassileth, PhD
SUMMARY: The Gerson regimen, developed by Max Gerson in the 1930s, is promoted as an alternative cancer treatment. It involves consuming fresh, raw fruit and vegetable juices, eliminating salt from the diet, taking supplements such as potassium, vitamin B12, thyroid hormone, pancreatic enzymes, and detoxifying liver with coffee enemas to stimulate metabolism.
Gerson therapy is based on the theory that cancer is caused by alteration of cell metabolism by toxic environmental substances and processed food, which changes its sodium and potassium content. It emphasizes increasing potassium intake and minimizing sodium consumption in an effort to correct the electrolyte imbalance, repair tissue, and detoxify the liver. The coffee enemas are believed to cause dilation of bile ducts and excretion of toxic breakdown products by the liver and through the colon wall. None of these theories has been substantiated by scientific research.[1,2]
Despite proponents’ claims of recovery rates as high as 70% to 90%, case reviews by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the New York County Medical Society found no evidence of usefulness for the Gerson diet.
An NCI-sponsored study of Gonzalez therapy, which is similar to the Gerson diet, showed that patients with inoperable pancreatic adenocarcinoma who underwent standard chemotherapy with gemcitabine (Gemzar) survived three times longer and had better quality of life than those who chose enzyme treatment, which included pancreatic enzymes, nutritional supplements, detoxification, and an organic diet.
ADVERSE REACTIONS: Adverse reactions to the Gerson regimen include flu-like symptoms, loss of appetite, perspiration with foul odor, weakness, dizziness, cold sores, fever blisters, high fever, tumor pain, intestinal cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting. (The Gerson Therapy Handbook claims that these adverse reactions are indicative of response.) Campylobacter fetus sepsis caused by the liver injections was reported in 13 patients on Gerson therapy between1980 and 1986. Coma from low serum sodium occurred in 5 of these patients.
Coffee enemas cause electrolyte imbalance, which has resulted in serious infections, dehydration, colitis, constipation, and death.
1. Cope FW: A medical application of the Ling association-induction hypothesis: The high potassium, low sodium diet of the Gerson cancer therapy. Physiol Chem Phys 10:465-468, 1978.
2. Jansson B: Geographic cancer risk and intracellular potassium/sodium ratios. Cancer Detect Prevent 9:171-194, 1986.
3. American Cancer Society: Making treatment decisions: Gerson therapy. Available at http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Gerson_Therapy.asp?sitearea=ETO. Accessed Dec 30, 2009.
4. Chabot JA, Tsai WY, Fine RL, et al: Pancreatic proteolytic enzyme therapy compared with gemcitabine-based chemotherapy for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. J Clin Oncol Aug 17, 2009 (epub ahead of print).
5. Gerson M: Gerson Therapy Handbook, 5th ed. San Diego, Calif; Gerson Institute; 1999.
6. American Cancer Society: Questionable methods of cancer management: ‘Nutritional’ therapies. CA Cancer J Clin 43:309-319, 1993.
7. Eisele JW, Reay DT: Deaths related to coffee enemas. JAMA 244:1608-1609, 1980.