Don’t Feed the (Cancer) Cells

That pumpkin pie is calling out your name; we can all hear it, but allow me to make that orange cylinder of sweetness a little less appealing in two words: sugar and cancer. The two terms are very often discussed in conjunction, and if medical literature is any indication, the debate about their association isn’t cooling down anytime soon. A recently published study provides some evidence that cancer cells may have a bit of a sweet tooth.

“Live long enough, and ultimately everybody will get cancer.” As menacing as it sounds, there is quite a bit of truth in that statement. The biggest factors in human life expectancy used to have frightening names like bubonic plague, malaria, and tuberculosis—infectious diseases that were spread from direct transfer of bacteria and viruses. No more. Today, the greatest determinant of lifespan is our own lifestyle, primarily our eating and physical activity habits, which determine (along with other factors, such as genetics) our risk for a variety of chronic diseases. With the progress in modern medicine, we’ve even been able to progressively reduce the incidences of the grand-daddy of them all: heart disease. Cancer? Not so much. Once you reach the age of 55, you are more likely to die from cancer than anything else, and that fact is rooted in how our very cells function. The human body is a self-improving and self-fixing scientific marvel, but even the greatest evolutionary machines makes mistakes. Our cells are constantly dividing in response to various internal and external input, and errors inevitably occur. Sometimes these errors go undetected and begin mutating and evolving independently of the rest of the body. So begins the life of a cancerous tumor. The longer you live, the longer the cycle of multiplying and mutating cells, the greater the potential for cancerous mutations. Even in a vacuum, feeding your machine the highest quality whole fuel, plenty of activity, and avoiding all carcinogens, given enough time you will eventually develop some form of cancer. That being said, we obviously don’t want to promote the growth of these self-evolving diseased cells, and that all begins with the basics of a healthy lifestyle.

Belgian researchers spent 9 years examining yeast cells to understand how specific sugars may influence the proliferation of cancer cells, and the results are published in a recent edition of Nature Communications. Previous cancer research had uncovered a phenomenon known as the Warburg Effect, which demonstrates how ingesting sugar is akin to hitting the NOS button on cancerous cell growth and replication. But the “how?” has remained a mystery. This latest research suggests that, like yeast, cancerous cells actually favor the fermentation of sugar over respiration. Glucose, the type of sugar that is the result of broken down carbohydrates (and other non-carbohydrate carbon substances, such as protein and fats through the less efficient process of gluconeogenesis) is the human body’s primary source of energy. Non-cancerous cells utilize oxygen to convert glucose into energy to fuel our metabolic and muscular needs, but cancerous cells can feed off of that same substance to multiply and expand. The mechanism? Ras. Sounds like a cool rapper’s name, but it is actually a family of signaling proteins that are prime proto-oncogene products; they help regulate cell proliferation, primarily the multiplication and spread of cancerous cell. The researchers found that an influx of glucose hyperactivates Ras, triggering cancerous cell multiplication and a decrease in apoptosis, the normal (healthy) process of programmed cellular death. So, along with increasing risk for associated comorbidities such as type 2 diabetes, chronically elevated levels of blood glucose may stimulate increased oncogenic potency.

While these findings do provide some further understanding of the mechanisms by which cancer cells multiply and expand, it is definitely not scientifically honest to make bold generalizations that sugar consumption causes cancerous tumor growth. But I feel comfortable in stating that keeping blood glucose levels in check by basing your diet on whole, fibrous-rich foods may be one of the most effective means to decreasing cancer risk. Furthermore, to provide some insight into the benefits of two of the latest diet crazes (ketogenesis and intermittent fasting), they may have some anti-cancer properties. Because the human body is unable to break down ketogenic amino acids into glucose, ketogenic diets may actually slow the progression of cancer, as some previous research has shown. Likewise, the autophagy induced by intermittent fasting may suppress cancer development. A few things to ponder as you sit down with loved ones this Thanksgiving and try to resist the siren call of that last slice of pumpkin pie.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.