A Review of the Research: Cancer and its Potential Causes and Treatments

Okinawa used to be the island of the age-defying, but World War II and the modern age have brought the Standard American Diet (SAD) into the everyday lives of Okinawans, for the worse. Post-military occupation, Okinawa now has a high incidence of obesity and the 2nd worst mortality rate in Japan. The local obesity epidemic has also been linked to the increase in breast cancer, a dangerously under-diagnosed killer in the region. Experts attending the Okinawa Breast Oncology Meeting in 2012 recommended the locals return to their traditional diet, one that is known to be low in calories and rich in nutrients to reduce their risk of cancer.

One of the nutrients that benefited the Okinawans pre-war era the most was iodine (something I’ve talked about before). In a 2005 issue of the Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia, researchers found that iodine had a suppressive effect on the development and size of both benign and malignant tumors. Found in seaweed, its considered a possible factor in the low incidence of breast cancer in Japanese women who eat traditionally.

Your Lifestyle: A Possible Cancer Risk?

In March of 2015, the Cancer Journal published an article stating that the global incidence of cancer is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. Why? The modern lifestyle. Smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diets, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle are all potential pit stops on the path to cancer–with smoking, alcohol, and obesity as the major factors.

They weren’t without good news, however. They noted that there was the potential to cut cancer occurrences in industrially developed and affluent societies in half by avoiding smoking, reducing our alcohol intake, being physically active, eating a plant-based diet, and controlling our weight.

Alcohol: A Deeper Look

By now most of our society understand that smoking causes cancer, but we don’t often talk about another common and legal vice in our culture. In February 2015, The British Journal of Cancer decided to take a closer look at alcohol’s connection to ‘the big C’.

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of several studies seeking to see which cancers alcohol had an effect on. They concluded that heavy drinkers (15 drinks a week for men, and 8 drinks a week for women) had a significantly higher risk of oral, larynx, breast, liver, lung, stomach, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers.

Why? Put simply, it’s all in the metabolic process. Your cells work hard to remove toxins like alcohol from your system; in doing so, however, they often create other toxic substances as by-products–substances that are associated with the development of the aforementioned cancers. By drinking large quantities of alcohol, you are forcing your body to produce a greater amount of those toxins that have been linked to developing cancer; potentially increasing your risk of disease Epigenetic studies suggest that individuals have a different response in how they metabolize alcohol and to take special precautions if cancer runs in your family.

Hormones: A Helping Hand

Hormones are another factor in the fight to prevent cancer. Asian women have a different makeup than their peers; this could be a reason for their lower rates of cancer in comparison to other regions of the world.

For instance, Mongolian women have progesterone levels that are 50% higher than their fellow women in the UK. Their testosterone levels were 18.5% lower and their estradiol concentrations were 19.1% higher. That’s quite a variation!

These biomarkers have been linked to lower rates of breast cancer in Asian women, furthermore their almost exclusive dietary reliance on organic, pasture-raised meat and dairy lead researchers to question the benefits of a low-fat diet on hormone circulation and cancer reduction.

Another hormone that may play a part in increasing your risk of cancer is insulin. In February of 2015 the Molecular Nutrition Food Research journal published a meta-analysis of the observational studies that sought to find a connection between a high glycemic load and an increased risk of cancer. It turns out that a high glycemic load is linked to an increase in breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, esophageal and especially colorectal malignant growths.

Normally we avoid having a high glycemic load in our blood through the release of a hormone called insulin. Unfortunately, this process can go wonky for a variety of reasons; particularly if an individual is suffering from diabetes. I talk about the implications of diabetes on our wellbeing because of insulin production in the body.

Trends That Make Sense

This is just the tip of the iceberg folks, but what ensuring trends can we see so far?

When it comes to certain diseases like cancer; diet and lifestyle have a clear impact on our potential to develop one or more of these conditions. Using ancestral diets–especially those rich in iodine–could have the potential to reduce our risks to these diseases.

Furthermore, research is beginning to show that our hormonal levels may be a factor in whether we’re at an increased risk for diseases like cancer.

Nutrients: Natural Cancer Resistance

Iodine isn’t the only nutrient that can potentially suppress the growth of cancerous cells. Retinoic acid, an important byproduct of Vitamin A ingestion, has been shown to suppress lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, oral, and some skin cancers. When cancer cells are exposed to high doses of this acid it’s production cycle stops and the cell “bursts”. Of course, retinoic acid in extremely high doses can be toxic to all cells–so experts recommend just increasing your dietary intake for potential cancer-suppressing benefits without the consequences of too much direct exposure.

Vitamin D levels can also play a factor in being cancer free, especially if you wish to avoid breast cancer. A study published in the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Ayub Medical College found that 99% of the breast cancer patients they examined were Vitamin D deficient.

Finally, Omega-3 consumption has also been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer. However, the majority of the world population, including the highly developed regions, consumes an insufficient amount of Omega-3s to gain it’s potential cancer preventive benefits.

Both Omega-3 and Vitamin D can be found in fatty fish like sardines, tuna, and salmon.

Phytochemicals are also a ‘nutrient’ of sorts, or rather they’re the overarching title for chemical compounds that can be found naturally in plants. The phytochemicals of certain plants could have breast cancer-suppressing effects. Green algae at high concentrations were able to suppress tumor frequency by 61%, according to an April 2015 copy of Nutrition. Another form of marine algae was reported on in the June 2013 issue of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, which concluded that exposure to spirulina increased the growth of human natural killer cells (members of our immune systems) and suppressed the growth of human cancer cells.

Phytochemical’s benefits were also supported in Asia. In China, 344 breast cancer patient’s reported their dietary habits. Those that ingested more than 250 grams of vegetables and fruits every day were found to have a higher quality of life. This may be due to their increased exposure to the aforementioned nutrients.

Finally, we have propolis; a resinous substance from plant sap and gum. It has been used as a healing agent since antiquity, and for good reason. The Journal of Dietary Supplements noted in their February 2015 issue that “Its biological effects, which range from antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, dermatoprotective, anti-allergic, laxative and immunomodulatory to anticancer, have been validated. Propolis has shown efficacy against brain, head, and neck, skin, breast, liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder, prostate, colon and blood cancers.”

For a resin that is normally metabolized by bees, that’s quite the potential impact on our health!

From Nutrients to Whole Foods

It’s not enough to look at specific nutrients, we also have to look at the whole foods we ingest on a regular basis.

For many Americans, red meat is one of the pinnacle dinner entrees. However, it may not be the wisest choice to consume a great deal of it if you’re a woman–increased consumption has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer, which is the leading global cause of cancer-related death in women. This doesn’t mean you need to cut out beef altogether, as only daily intakes of processed meat were consistently linked to increased odds of malignant growths. Fish, another meat, was found to be preventative (this makes sense, think of all that vitamin D, Omega-3 and Iodine!).

Food isn’t just preventative, it can be used to potentially alleviate issues that arise from being diagnosed. In 2014, Lipids in Health and Disease concluded that virgin coconut oil consumption reduced the side effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients, as well as improved their quality of life. You needn’t be a cancer patient to benefit from coconut oil though, I’ve written about its other benefits here and here.

Seaweed is another super-nutrient. It’s rich in iodine (mentioned above) and it’s an algae. As such, research has begun to link it to the eradication and progression suppression of cancers (specifically colorectal and breast–2 leading causes of mortality in men and women).

The final food I’ll mention is garlic. Garlic and its extracts have been shown to inhibit malignant cell proliferation by arresting the cell reproduction cycle and inducing apoptosis (this means the cell bursts). If you want to avoid ‘overdosing’ on Retinoic acid, garlic has the potential to trigger the same effects.

The Final Puzzle Piece: Stress and Surviving

It’s not enough to just receive treatment, we have to take care of ourselves as well. An oft-overlooked indicator of overall well being is mental health, the lack of which is known as a “co-morbidity” or secondary condition in women with breast cancer.

Fortunately, breast cancer patients (and others) can improve their mental health and quality of life through mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

Determinations: What can we Conclude?

I’ve inundated you with quite a bit of information if you feel overwhelmed I do not blame you. There are clear trends in the data however, so what can we conclude?

More than anything else: it does matter what you eat: nutrition counts. While it would be rash (and unfounded) to say that food alone can prevent or cure cancer; it’s not foolish to note it’s continually proving to be a key player in determining whether or not you ever present with a variety of diseases, including ‘the big C’.

If you are what you eat, it would be wise to eat healthfully and wholly so that you can be those things too. Just some food for thought.