By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition
On June 5, National Cancer Survivor Day reminded us that cancer is something that a lot of us have lived with and continue to work through. While we often think of the many forms of cancer as processes that are mostly evident, the initial phases of cancer development and growth are both quiet and highly sensitive to many of the body’s defense mechanisms. At some point, tumors or cancer growths reach a point where the body’s normal processes start to be outmatched. Before this however, cancer cells are frequently being extinguished without our knowing.
Cancer prevention, both initial prevention and preventing recurrence, is really about supporting our body’s efforts to identify, fight, and starve cancer cells and growths. Our immune system plays a big role in this of course, but every one of our cells has the ability to self-destruct if it recognizes that there is mutated genetic material, dysfunctional cell properties, and other characteristics that are often associated with cancer. A cell’s ability to recognize and act upon this is a critical component to prevention.
Short, intermittent fasts are one way of assuring that our cells have this process of apoptosis at their disposal. When there is a reduced or restricted amount of energy entering our blood stream, especially from protein and carbohydrates, our cells start to turn up their vigilance and screening. There is a greater imperative on keeping the healthiest, less compromised cells around. This favors cancer prevention in the most fundamental way.
Another important aspect of primary cancer prevention is autophagy or cell component recycling. Just as entire cells can be directed to self-destruct, some of a cell’s internal hardware needs remodeling from time to time. This is also turned up with protein and carbohydrate restrictions, as well as with the increased presence of many phytonutrients. The spices turmeric and cumin, for instance, are rich in substances that have demonstrated both apoptosis and autophagy stimulation. Vegetables such as purple sweet potatoes, garlic, and collard greens are also very rich in these highly protective plant compounds. Overall, leading a lifestyle that includes periodic energy shortages through more exercise and occasional fasts, combined with a diet rich in vegetables and pungent herbs and spices, optimizes a healthier cell population overall.
Cancer cells are also highly glycolytic or "sugar dependent." Reducing sugar consumption can help shut off the supply line to cells that are typically very hungry for carbohydrates. Cancer cells are not good at using anything else for fuel, so giving our metabolism a break from time to time, especially from the richest carbohydrate sources, makes as much sense as any dietary prevention component. Avoiding fruit juice and all of those foods sweetened with fruit juice concentrates is as important as steering clear of the more obvious sources of sugar that range from soft drinks to the enormous amount of snack foods and dessert items. Even limiting fruit intake to those varieties with less sugar (berries, grapefruits), in favor of more vegetables is a good strategy to apply for at least part of the time.
Lastly, cancer growths typically require significant blood flow to feed their enormous appetite. The growth of blood vessels into a cancer growth or tumor is known as angiogenesis. There are many factors that influence this process and numerous foods have been shown to contain significant anti-angiogenesis properties. Earl Grey tea is among the best that we can drink for this purpose and leeks, lemons, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes are some of the best foods we can eat. Avoiding foods rich in polyunsaturated fat, especially the seed oils that are so high in their omega-6 fatty acid content, can also help restrict angiogenesis. Enjoying more salads made with cherry tomatoes, dark greens, olive oil and lemon juice dressing, and less food made with or cooked in canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, or corn oil, are good examples of how simple this can be. Eliminating seed oils is not only an important component to limiting angiogenesis, but to providing the body with balance in many ways, especially inflammation.
In summary, it is probably a much healthier perspective to consider cancer something that we all live with day to day. Looking at diet and lifestyle as integral components to help put out the "brush fires" before they become forest fires is a great reminder, if not incentive, as to their importance. The body has an amazing array of processes that can help keep us healthy…we just have to support it.
Yan Jiang, Yong Pan, Patrea R. Rhea, Lin Tan, Mihai Gagea, Lorenzo Cohen, Susan M. Fischer, and Peiying Yang. A Sucrose-Enriched Diet Promotes Tumorigenesis in Mammary Gland in Part through the 12-Lipoxygenase Pathway. Cancer Res, January 1, 2016 76:24-29 DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-14-3432
Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.