Reducing Cancer Risk Through Nutrition and Lifestyle
The word cancer can instill fear in all of us. Although cancer is scary, you can take power into your own hands to lower your odds of diagnosis or recurrence. When you better understand your genes, what pathways in the body influence cancer risk, how you can keep those pathways happy, and which nutrition and lifestyle tips may reduce your cancer risk, you can take control of your health.
Express Your (Genetic) Self
Cancer is the result of either the normal expression of a mutated gene or the mutated expression of a normal gene. Human DNA contains approximately 30,000 genes. Some genes are good for health and some genes are bad, such as the BRCA1 and 2 mutated genes linked to breast cancer. All of these genes, good or bad, need to be ‘turned on’ to be expressed. So for optimal health, you want the good genes turned on and the bad genes turned off. You also want to keep your good genes from mutating.
The study of epigenetics explains that your environment influences your genetic expression. For instance, exposure to cigarette smoke or industrial pollutants can damage DNA and create gene mutations. Here are just a few other ways your environment and lifestyle can negatively affect how your genes are expressed:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Bacterial toxins
- Carcinogenic compounds in your food and environment
- Certain medications
- Hydrocarbons from charcoal grilling
You may even be someone with an inherited genetic mutation. Reducing exposure to these gene altering effects can greatly reduce your risk. Additionally, you can also mediate your bad genes by protecting five key pathways in your body.
The Critical Pathways
According to Lise Alschuler, ND in her book Five to Thrive, dysfunction in one or more of the following pathways can increase your risk of cancer:
- Immune System
- Controlling Inflammation
- Hormonal Balance
- Insulin Sensitivity
- Digestion and Detoxification
Let’s take a look at the importance of each pathway:
Immune System: Your immune system works hard every day investigating things coming in, determining if these new invaders are dangerous and, if so, destroying them. They are like the bouncers for your body, kicking out the surly guys and letting the good guys in. When you are constantly mounting assaults on the bad guys, your immune system is in overdrive, initiating an inflammatory response. This stimulates rapid cell division and increases nutrients to cells which is great for repairing the body, but detrimental in the presence of cancer cells. A chronically activated immune system can increase cancer risk.
Inflammation: There is a normal inflammatory response anytime you accidentally cut your finger, but the main trigger for systemic inflammation is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is created when there is an overabundance of free radical molecules or pro-oxidants without enough anti-oxidants to counteract them. Oxidative damage can be caused by environmental toxins, processed foods, artificial ingredients, lack of exercise, injury, illness, and excessive stress. If your diet is not rich in antioxidants, chronic inflammation can occur. Chronic inflammation stimulates excessive cell growth and inhibits apoptosis, or cell death, both of which can increase your risk of cancer.
Hormonal Balance: The human body produces approximately 50 different hormones, all functioning together to keep your body healthy. They require a delicate balance, working harmoniously to influence the activities of your cells. When one hormone gets out of sync, other hormones follow suit. One hormone, cortisol, can suppress your immune system and increase blood vessels to tumors when it is produced in excess. Additionally, breast cancer cells are studded with estrogen receptors and many types of cancer cells have several insulin receptors, both of which can drive the growth of cancer.
Insulin Resistance: When your cells lose their sensitivity to insulin they can no longer efficiently uptake glucose for energy and they even lose many of their insulin receptors. A normal cell has 200,000 insulin receptors, while an insulin resistant cell may have only 2,000! Cancer cells are covered with insulin receptors, which means cancer cells will get preferential treatment and get their supply of glucose (and energy) over normal cells, increasing growth of cancer cells.
Digestion and Detoxification: Roughly 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut. When your gastrointestinal tract is damaged or dysfunctional your immune system also suffers. Additionally, your liver and digestive tract assist with detoxification. If either systems are not functioning optimally, inflammation will ensue. This creates a 1-2 punch, decreased immunity and increased inflammation which lead to greater cancer risk.
Keeping Your Pathways Happy
This may sound like a lot of things to think about! However, there are just four simple diet and lifestyle changes you can make to support all of these pathways in your pursuit of cancer prevention.
- Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Studies have shown the more stress and stressors you have, the higher your risk of degenerative diseases. Chronic high levels of stress suppress your immune system, increase inflammation, create hormonal imbalance including insulin, impairs digestion, and compromises detoxification. Therefore, reducing stress in your life can enhance all five pathways. Of course, stress can never be completely eliminated, but changing your perception of stressors and finding ways to de-stress like meditation, yoga, laughing, exercising, spending time with loved ones, appreciating others, and creating a gratitude journal can all greatly reduce your stress load.
- Get Moving. Physical movement actually influences your DNA. Additionally, moderate exercise enhances immunity, reduces inflammation, decreases stress hormones, assists with hormonal balance, increases insulin sensitivity, improves digestion and stimulates liver detoxification. A great way to get and stay moving is to pick physical activities you enjoy and write down your fitness goals to stay motivated.
- Balance Blood Sugar. You now know insulin resistance can greatly increase your risk of cancer. Even before your cells reach that phase, imbalanced blood sugar levels from a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugars creates stress on the body. Sugar compromises your immune system and blood sugar swings create inflammation in the body. To better balance your blood sugar, focus on a low-glycemic, whole foods diet with fat, fiber and protein in each meal.
- Use Foods To Heal. It is estimated that diet is responsible for 30-35% of all deaths from cancer. This statistic may not be as shocking when you understand that quality nutrition helps to repair DNA and activate tumor suppressing genes. Another sobering statistic is that obesity is responsible for one in six cancer deaths in the United States. This is partly due to the inflammatory process created by excess weight. Foods that will support the five pathways, repair DNA and optimize weight are at the heart of a Cancer Prevention Diet.
The Cancer Prevention Diet
Whether you are in remission or just trying to prevent any cancer diagnosis, there are five key principles to follow to optimize your health, support the five pathways and reduce your risk of cancer.
- Consume sufficient, but not excessive, calories. Portion control is important for health and weight. Quick Tip – eat slowly and use smaller plates to control portions.
- Eat a colorful diet. Phytonutrients in colorful vegetables help decrease inflammation, enhance immunity and promote cancer cell death. Quick Tip – work towards eating at least 5 colorful veggies, especially cruciferous veggies, and fruits per day.
- Eat a whole foods diet. Studies indicate organic foods tend to have higher levels of vitamins and minerals compared to their conventional counterparts. Quick Tip – choose organic when possible, particularly for the EWG’s Dirty DozenTM list of produce highest in pesticides.
- Highlight fats from plant and marine sources. Omega-3 fats have anti-cancer properties, reduce inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity. Quick Tip – Include fatty cold water fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, nuts and seeds in your weekly meal plan.
- Reduce or eliminate refined, processed, sugary and packaged foods. Studies indicate that even one meal of refined carbohydrates increases inflammation in the body. Quick Tip – slowly replace packaged foods with a whole food equivalent (ex. boxed rice pilaf for quinoa).
Targeted supplementation can also reduce your risk of cancer. Consider EPA/DHA, probiotics, vitamin D, green tea extract, turmeric and resveratrol as options to further reduce your risk of cancer.
Making all of these changes won’t guarantee you stay cancer-free. Additionally, this information is not presented as a cure for cancer, but as ways you can support your body’s natural healing resources. If you have unexplained pain and/or weight loss, extreme fatigue, prolonged hoarseness, blood in your stool or urine, or changes in bowel movements, consult with your doctor for cancer screening. Consider the following cancer screening tests:
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) for men
- Pap smear and CA-125 ovarian test for women
- Mammogram for women
- Chest x-rays if lung cancer is suspected
Early detection, quality nutrition, stress management and exercise can all optimize health and put your mind at ease!
Stephanie Walsh, MNT, CEPC, CPT is a Master Nutrition Therapist, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Certified Eating Psychology Coach and Personal Trainer. Her work with clients focuses on the individual as a whole – considering your diet is just one small piece of the puzzle. Her holistic approach considers your stressors, sleep quality, digestive complaints, food choices, activity level, readiness for change, social support and much more in order to help you optimize your health and wellbeing for the long term. Contact Stephanie at 207-730-2208 or email her: email@example.com.