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Gerson Therapy (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version
Last Modified: 08/10/2012

General Information

The Gerson therapy is a complex regimen advocated by its supporters to treat cancer and other degenerative diseases. It consists of a specialized diet to “detoxify” the body and rebuild the immune system, adding vitamin and mineral supplements to help in these processes. Coffee enemas are an essential part of the regimen. The therapy is named for its developer, Max Gerson, a German physician who emigrated to the United States and started a medical practice in New York City in 1938.[1,2]

The Gerson therapy is rooted in the belief that cancer is a disease of the whole organism, the tumor being only a symptom of a diseased body. Gerson considered cancer to be an accumulation of several damaging factors that combine to cause the deterioration of the entire metabolic system. The goal of the Gerson therapy is to bring the body back to its normal metabolic state, or as near to this state as possible, and to keep the metabolism in natural equilibrium.[1,2]

Gerson observed that cancer patients exhibited markedly degenerated organs, especially the liver, presumably caused by the clearing of toxic materials of an unknown type that the disease produced. He also noted that the situation became worse after chemotherapy, probably because of more toxic products entering the bloodstream. Gerson’s regimen focused on helping the liver rid the body of toxic substances while restoring and maintaining healthy liver function.[1,2]

According to Gerson, during the detoxification process that results from the Gerson diet, the liver becomes progressively overburdened as the body rids itself of toxic substances formed by the breakdown of cancer cells. Coffee enemas, pancreatic enzymes, and crude liver extract are used to help the liver deal with the burden of removing toxic substances.[1-5]

Total control of everything that enters and leaves the body is the governing principle of the Gerson regimen. Its three main components are strict diet, nutritional supplements, and regular enemas.

The diet is strictly vegetarian for at least 6 weeks and consists of specific fruits and vegetables, eaten either raw or stewed in their own juices. No animal protein is allowed. Some whole grains such as oatmeal are included. Flaxseed oil is allowed only because it aids in the body’s use of vitamin A.[2] No other fat such as cooking oil and no salt or spices of any kind are allowed. A glass of freshly prepared juice from vegetables and fruits must be consumed every hour for 13 hours throughout the day. The vegetables and fruits used on the diet are very high in potassium and very low in sodium.

Food preparation is also controlled. Food may be prepared only in cast-iron pots and pans; no aluminum cookware is allowed. Juices must be prepared using a specific type of juicer that crushes the fruit or vegetable rather than grinding it into pulp. Gerson advocated organically produced food, with all fruits, vegetables, and grains grown and raised in soil free of pesticides and contaminants and enriched only with natural fertilizers.[2]

The protein and dairy restriction may be lifted to include buttermilk; however, this restriction may continue through the entire course of the therapy, depending on the individual patient. Some changes in the original diet have occurred over time, but the initiation phase of the diet has always been a vegetarian diet.[2]

Taking specific vitamin and mineral supplements plus pancreatic enzymes is the second component of the regimen. Although there have been additions and substitutions to the basic list of supplements, there have been few changes since the 1940s. The typical range of supplements includes the following:

  1. Potassium solution
  2. Lugol’s solution (potassium iodide, iodine, water)
  3. Injectable crude liver extract (no longer used) with vitamin B12 (substitution: coenzyme Q10 and vitamin B12)
  4. Vitamins A, C, and B3 (niacin)
  5. Flaxseed oil
  6. Pancreatic enzymes
  7. Pepsin

The potassium solution (potassium dissolved in water) is to help increase the ratio of potassium to sodium in the cells. Lugol’s solution, which consists of 5 g of iodine and 10 g of potassium iodide dissolved in water, is given to increase the body’s metabolic rate. The potassium solution and Lugol’s solution are both added to the hourly juice intake.[1-5]

Originally, Gerson thought that using crude liver extract and juice (made by processing fresh calf and veal livers) would help maintain liver function. The extract and juice were given to patients via injection with the vitamin B12. In 1989, the use of injectable crude liver extract was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because it was found to be contaminated with Campylobacter.[1,2] Desiccated liver capsules replaced the crude extract, but this has now been replaced by coenzyme Q10.[2] As mentioned above, flaxseed oil is used to help the body utilize vitamin A. Pancreatic enzymes are given to assist in the digestion and the elimination of the breakdown products in the colon.

Coffee (or chamomile) enemas are the third component of the Gerson therapy. Coffee enemas supposedly dilate the bile duct in the liver, thereby allowing the liver to release the breakdown products more easily and speed their removal to the intestine. At the beginning of therapy, a patient may take four or more coffee enemas per day. Literature suggests that coffee enemas help relieve the pain associated with gastrointestinal cancers; however, there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that the enemas actually dilate the bile ducts.[6,7]

Central to the therapy is an abundance of potassium and the lack of sodium. Gerson had observed that as soon as his cancer patients started on the diet regimen, they released large amounts of sodium in their urine. He noticed that cells in the patients’ bodies that had been bloated with fluid started to shrink as the fluid was released.[1] After studying the research in cancer cell biology available to him at the time and noting the ratio of potassium to sodium in cancer cells versus healthy cells, he deduced that the reason for this sodium excretion was that the diet regimen was correcting generalized tissue damage caused by excess sodium. Healthy cells had a high ratio of potassium to sodium; diseased cells had a low ratio of potassium to sodium or an abundance of sodium.[1]

The implications of this observation led Gerson to believe that part of the process of recovery from cancer was the replacement of excess sodium by potassium in damaged tissues.[8] This belief is the theoretical basis for Gerson’s choice of high-potassium, low-sodium fruits and vegetables in his prescribed diet: a high intake of potassium was needed to restore a normal ratio of potassium to sodium in the cell.

The Gerson therapy is the basis for other CAM therapies that include cleansing enemas or special diets as part of their regimens, most notably the Gonzalez regimen. (Refer to the PDQ summary on the Gonzalez Regimen for more information.)

References
  1. Gerson M: A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and The Cure of Advanced Cancer by Diet Therapy. San Diego, Calif: The Gerson Institute, 2002. 

  2. Gerson C, Walker M: The Gerson Therapy: The Amazing Nutritional Program for Cancer and Other Illnesses. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2001. 

  3. Gerson M: Effects of a combined dietary regime on patients with malignant tumors. Exp Med Surg 7 (4): 299-317, illust, 1949.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  4. Gerson M: Dietary considerations in malignant neoplastic disease: preliminary report. Rev Gastroenterol 12: 419-25, 1945. Also available online. Last accessed August 10, 2012. 

  5. Gerson M: The cure of advanced cancer by diet therapy: a summary of 30 years of clinical experimentation. Physiol Chem Phys 10 (5): 449-64, 1978.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  6. Green S: A critique of the rationale for cancer treatment with coffee enemas and diet. JAMA 268 (22): 3224-7, 1992.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  7. Brown BT: Treating cancer with coffee enemas and diet. JAMA 269 (13): 1635-6, 1993.  [PUBMED Abstract]

  8. 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 (5): 465-8, 1978.  [PUBMED Abstract]