Vitamin B17 Controversy: Poison or Cancer Treatment?
Banned by the FDA in the 1980s but touted by some alternative medicine practitioners as a treatment for cancer, the controversy over the innocently named vitamin B17 rages on. Once labeled and marketed as a vitamin, its appearance practically disappeared without a trace within the mainstream medical community.
Today, however, a simple Web search pulls multiple blogs and articles either generously supporting this nutrient as a miracle cure or vilifying it as a hoax.
Vitamin B17, also called amygdalin or laetrile, is a glycoside nutrient linked with cancer prevention in alternative medicine practices — and there are anecdotal claims that it’s actually cured cancer. Vitamin B17 is derived from natural food sources and most abundant in seeds of plants of the prunasin family, such as apricots and apples.
Vitamin B17 interacts with other antioxidants — including vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E — along with pancreatic enzymes to break down and eliminate harmful cells from the body. This makes it beneficial for detox support, immunity and potentially even various forms of disease prevention.
Vitamin B17, which has the scientific name mandelonitrile beta-D-gentiobioside, is considered a nitriloside, a natural cyanide-containing substance. Laetrile, the extract form of vitamin B17, is most well-known for potentially helping prevent cancer development through the production of hydrogen cyanide.
This beneficial compound is released into the body’s tissues and targets and destroys mutated cells. Although more formal research is still needed to prove vitamin B17’s effectiveness, many alternative medicine practitioners use vitamin B17 to increase immunity. Cyanide is thought to be the main anti-cancer component of vitamin B17 but is not fully proven in clinical settings as of today.
Vitamin B17’s Potentially Big Benefits
1. May Help Protect Against Cancer
Overall, study results investigating the anti-cancer effects of vitamin B17 are mixed. Some show that vitamin B17 is beneficial in avoiding cancer and keeping the spread of existing cancer cells to a minimum, while others show no effects of vitamin B17 on cancerous cells. While many practitioners believe that vitamin B17 laetrile is a very good cancer treatment, most agree that it shouldn’t be the primary cancer treatment for any patient — instead, they recommend that it be used as an effective add-on supplement.
Vitamin B17, specifically in the form of D-amygdalin, may help with the regression and growth of cancerous cells and tumors because it exhibits selective killing effects on mutated cells, also called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a mechanism of “programmed cell death” and considered an important part of cancer treatment. Vitamin B17 compounds have the important ability to kill cancer cells more readily than killing normal, healthy cells.
In a study by the Department of Physiology at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, when amygdalin extract was combined with cancerous human prostate cells, the extract helped significantly induce apotosis in the prostate cancer cells. The researchers conclude that amygdalin may offer a valuable, natural option for treating prostate cancer. (1)
Other animal studies show that vitamin B17 amygdalin is effective at killing cancerous bladder and brain cells under certain conditions, especially when combined with other antibody-enzyme complexes. (2)
On the other hand, other studies using human lung and breast cancer cells show no effects of vitamin B17 on stunting tumor growth. Therefore, in the medical community, there still isn’t agreement at this time as to whether vitamin B17 should be used as an anti-cancer treatment.
2. Boosts Immunity
Vitamin B17 contains special properties that slow down the spread of illness throughout the body by killing harmful cells, but the exact way that vitamin B17 does this isn’t well-understood.
A study published in the International Journal of Radiation and Biology found that vitamin B17 amygdalin stimulated the immune system by causing a statistically significant increase in the ability of a patient’s white blood cells to attack harmful cells. (3) One theory of vitamin B17’s effects suggests that transformation of normal cells into dangerous cells that can cause disease is normally prevented by beneficial enzymes produced within the pancreas. So vitamin B17 may help increase the production of pancreatic enzymes that destroy harmful properties within the body.
Vitamin B17 is also thought to help the body experience enhanced detox effects by supporting liver function. This boosts immune function by ridding the body of toxins, malignant cells and other potentially harmful substances before they cause illness or serious chronic diseases. Another explanation of vitamin B17 mechanisms is that when vitamin B17 releases cyanide, it increases the acid content of tumors and leads to the destruction of harmful cells within the tumors, arresting their growth.
3. Reduces Pain
In a case series published in 1962, when patients were treated with a wide range of doses of intravenous vitamin B17 laetrile, pain relief was the primary benefit reported. Some of the patients’ responses included decreased adenopathy (swollen lymph nodes) and decreased tumor size.
However, patients weren’t followed long term to determine whether or not the benefits continued after treatment stopped, so it’s hard to tell whether vitamin B17 could act as a natural pain reliever for other conditions, such as arthritis. (4)
4. Lowers High Blood Pressure
Vitamin B17 may cause a low blood pressure reaction due to formation of thiocyanate, a powerful blood pressure–lowering agent. However, it’s unknown if this is an effective treatment long-term or if the effects are mostly temporary.
Once metabolized, vitamin B17 causes enzyme beta-glucosidase production that interacts with intestinal bacteria to detox the body and lower blood pressure. This normally isn’t a danger for most people and may be beneficial for some, but it’s important not to use vitamin B17 in this way if you already take blood pressure-lowering medication.
If you have any existing heart issues that could become complicated if you experienced a sudden drop in blood pressure, you should avoid taking vitamin B17.
Is Vitamin B17 Safe?
Although many studies find vitamin B17 to be safe for human consumption, more information is still needed to determine the most effective dose, possible toxic reactions and long-term side effects of high doses.
Toxicity resulting from cyanide poisoning is much higher when vitamin B17 is given orally, because intestinal bacteria contain enzymes that activate the release of cyanide found in vitamin B17 and make its effects much more drastic and quick-acting. However, when vitamin B17 laetrile is injected, this rarely occurs.
Because the evidence is unclear, I recommend obtaining vitamin B17 from food sources rather than high doses of supplements. While food sources may provide smaller doses, they’re always a safer option that poses much less of a risk than extracts and pills.
Best Sources of Vitamin B17
Apricot kernels and bitter almonds are most commonly used to create an extract form of vitamin B17. But
almost all seeds and kernels from various types of fruits contain vitamin B17, such as apple seeds and pear seeds. Beans and certain whole grains also contain vitamin B17.
The exact amount of vitamin B17 within foods is not well-known, and levels are thought to vary widely within a food depending on where it’s grown, the quality of the soil and how fresh it is.
According to the Vitamin B17 Organization, these are some of the highest sources of absorbable vitamin B17: (5)
- Apricots (kernels/seeds)
- Seeds from other fruits like apples, cherries, peaches, prunes, plums, pears
- Lima beans
- Fava Beans
- Macadamia nuts
- Bean sprouts
- Bamboo shoots
Is Vitamin B17 Treatment New?
Vitamin B17 is far from new. “Bitter almonds,” another source of vitamin B17, have been used as a traditional remedy for thousands of years by cultures, including ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Pueblo Indians. The compounds in vitamin B17 were discovered around 1802 when a chemist realized that distilling the water from bitter almonds released hydrocyanic acid and this could be purified to form amygdalin, the active ingredient of vitamin B17.
Vitamin B17 in the form of laetrile was first used as a cancer treatment in Russia back in the mid-1800s and then spread to the United States in the 1920s. By the 1970s, laetrile gained popularity as an anti-cancer agent, with more than 70,000 individuals in the U.S. alone using vitamin B17 laetrile to help treat cancer.
Today, vitamin B17 laetrile is not approved for cancer prevention or cancer treatment use in the United States. That’s because there’s little evidence to fully understand how laetrile works in humans and prove that it’s definitely safe and effective.
While vitamin B17 shows anti-cancer activity in some animal studies, the FDA feels that more information is needed regarding the effects of vitamin B17 in human clinical trials before it can be widely used to prevent disease and increase immunity. (6)
While it’s a banned substance for retailers to sell, it’s not illegal to possess or use. Therefore, some practitioners still use vitamin B17 in the form of laetrile to help treat cancer. They often obtain these supplements and extracts from Mexico, where vitamin B17 production for medicinal purposed is still supported.
Recommended Intake of Vitamin B17
At this time, there is no established daily value of vitamin B17 from the USDA. However, many physicians specializing in cancer treatment use vitamin B17 (or laetrile) in relatively high doses without patients commonly experiencing side effects.
Vitamin B17 isn’t used by many people who are relatively healthy and not suffering from a serious condition like cancer, so it’s hard to establish what the best preventative dose might be without more evidence or research.
Currently, the administration, schedules and the length of treatment with vitamin B17 vary widely depending on the patient’s specific condition and the practitioner prescribing it. Part of the trouble determining exactly how and how much vitamin B17 can be beneficial is that much of the research using vitamin B17 took place in the 1970s and ’80s but was discontinued since the ban in the 1980s.
Vitamin B17 laetrile (or amygdalin) is often taken as part of a larger therapy protocol that includes a specific diet with high doses of immune-boosting vitamins. Although no standard treatment plan exists, injecting vitamin B17 into a vein each day for two–three weeks is a commonly used method, followed by oral vitamin B17 tablets in smaller doses. Vitamin B17 extract is also used in enemas and treatments that can be directly applied to the skin. (7)
Vitamin B17, in the form of amygdalin, given intravenously at up to 4.5 grams a day produced no clinical or laboratory evidence of toxic reactions, according to one report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (8) Other studies show similar results and only report cases of toxicity when very high doses were given, causing cyanide poisoning.
Types of Vitamin B17 Supplements
Vitamin B17, or laetrile extract, can be administered orally as a pill, or it can be given by injections (intravenous or intramuscular). Most often vitamin B17 is given intravenously for a short period of time and then followed up with lower doses of oral tablets for maintenance therapy.
In the medical community, vitamin B17 injections are usually used to help prevent ortreat cancer, although these are extremely expensive, costing thousands of dollars for only a few months of treatment. Vitamin B17 injections are given to patients already undergoing chemotherapy treatments in some cases because they help offset symptoms of chemotherapy and prevent cancer reoccurrence.
Because the FDA made the purchase of vitamin B17 laetrile supplements illegal and almost impossible to obtain, many people choose to buy extracts or tablets over the Internet. A popular way to consume vitamin B17 is eating apricot kernels. In the middle of an apricot, or other fruit seeds like a peach pit or apple seed, there is a hard shell that can be broken into. Once broken, a small seed/kernel in the middle is found that looks something like a small almond — this is the part of the fruit that’s naturally high in vitamin B17.
Some people choose to purchase high quantities of apricot kernels over the Internet or pills and liquid supplements made from apricot kernels. Experts usually recommend eating 25–40 kernels per day for disease prevention or about 16 kernels and up for maintenance.
Vitamin B17 Recipes
For support with immune function, naturally increase your intake of vitamin B17 through food sources like those listed above. Getting your nutrients from whole foods means you don’t need to worry about synthetic fillers, toxins and the potential for overdosing that come along with using questionable extracts and supplements.
Here are several recipe ideas using foods high in vitamin B17:
- Cashew Chicken with Apricot Sauce
- Frozen Berries with Coconut and Lime
- Dark Chocolate Almond Butter
Vitamin B17 Side Effects and Interactions
Many cases show that vitamin B17 is usually well-tolerated and doesn’t cause toxicity or harm, but some people experience side effects associated with symptoms of cyanide poisoning. Cyanide is a neurotoxin that causes a range of side effects, including nausea and vomiting, headaches, dizziness, discoloration of the skin resulting from oxygen-deprived hemoglobin in the blood, liver damage, abnormally low blood pressure, mental confusion, and even death.
Oral vitamin B17 is considered more dangerous and prone to cyanide poising than injected laetrile. These side effects are increased by eating raw almonds or crushed fruit pits, or by eating fruits and vegetables that contain beta-glucosidase enzymes — including celery, peaches, bean sprouts and carrots.
High doses of vitamin C can also add to harmful side effects when taking vitamin B17. On the other hand, consuming foods that contain acid, specifically hydrochloric acid, helps prevent side effects of vitamin B17. These include citrus fruits like lemon, orange or grapefruit.
A couple of serious warnings to keep in mind regarding interactions of vitamin B17 include the fact that it can lower blood pressure drastically in some cases and also cause blood thinning. So it should never be used with other blood pressure medications or prescriptions known to thin blood. It’s also not recommended to take vitamin B17 with probiotics because probiotics may enhance the effects of cyanide and lead to cyanide poisoning in some rare cases.