Cancer is something that each and every one of us has heard about. It may ring home for some of us more than others, particularly if it’s devastating effects have affected our friends and loved ones. I have recently been fascinated by this disease, specifically some of the research coming to light about nutrition and cancer. This article will discuss, very generally, what cancer is, how cancer has a ravenous appetite for carbohydrates, and ultimately how one could go about reducing the effects or prevalence of cancer within themselves with nutritional/dietary interventions based on some very interesting research on ketogenic diets.
What is cancer?
Very simply put, cancer is a disease that develops as a result of faulty/damaged/abnormal cells within our body growing in an uncontrolled manner.
Usually, if a cell is operating improperly, or has been damaged beyond reasonable repair, it is destroyed (a process known as ”apoptosis”) and its remaining pieces are recycled for use in the body’s other cells and tissues. Cancerous cells ignore this checks and balances system, and continue to divide at a very rapid rate with reckless abandon. As they continue to grow, they become tumors. These tumors have the ability to spread into and damage surrounding healthy tissues.
Cancerous cells usually develop as a result of a malfunction within the individual cell’s DNA, and thus the rapid, uncontrolled growth begins.
How to we find most cancers?
Through the use of a PET scan. PET (positron emission tomography) scans are performed though the use of a glucose dye and diagnostic imaging. The dye is injected intravenously and circulates throughout the body. The dye moves throughout the blood stream and contains a radioactive tracer that allows it to easily be tracked through the use of diagnostic imaging. These molecules allow for a doctor to view blood flow, glucose metabolism (cellular use of carbohydrates/sugars) and oxygen utilization throughout the body’s tissues.
The areas that are VERY active relative to normal tissues display brightly on PET scan images, and are likely tumerous/cancerous.
The below image from a PET scan shows the “more colorful” areas as cancerous within a man’s brain:
The scale along the right side notes that yellow/orange/red areas are using glucose at a much higher rate than the rest of the brain, which is blue and green.
Cancer Cells, Glucose and the Potential Benefits of High Fat/Low Carb/Ketogenic Diets.
A detailed and informative article authored by Rainer J Klement, outlines how glucose is consumed at an incredibly heightened rate in cancer cells relative to normal cells.
I am by no means a doctor, nor do I claim to be one on the internets, but here are my conclusions based on this article:
- Cancer cells want to grow, and they want to grow fast.
- Due to their damaged DNA, their mitochondria (structures within the cell responsible for creating energy/ATP that are essentially “power plants” that keep the lights on) are damaged and faulty as well.
- These damaged mitochondria are unable to use fat as a source of energy production.
- They are very good at using carbohydrates as a source of energy production
- The cancer cells know what they are good at, and what they are not good at, so they become more and more able to increase their rate of glucose metabolism/use for energy.
- Cancer cells require a huge amount of energy to grow as rapidly as they do.
- They almost exclusively utilize glucose (carbs/sugars) to promote this growth.
- Preliminary studies (a few here: 1, 2, 3) have shown that fasting and low-carbohydrate diets are effective at significantly reducing insulin and blood glucose levels (obviously, but the idea is that cancer cells would “starve” as a result of this), which significantly decreased the rate of growth and proliferation of cancer cells, as they are low on fuel.
- Cancer related cachexia (muscle loss due to cancer, and quality of life loss as a result) was reduced in subjects, and in some cases on the verge of being reversed
- The effects of the low-carbohydrate/ketogenic diets seemed to be synergistic with, and improve the effectiveness of, chemotherapy treatments
- It also reduced the side effects associated with chemotherapy
I find this to be fascinating. Could high fat, low-carbohydrate diets actually drive cancers into remission via starving the cancer cells, and be beneficial in cancer treatments? Although I have no formal education on this matter, the data seem promising. What are the ramifications for simply trying an acute high-fat/ketogenic diet such as the ones utilized in the few studies above? My immediate answer is that the potential pros vastly outnumber the potential cons.
One could even say that cancer is a metabolic disease, and survival could be highly dependent on the diet of the individual affected. I know this is speculative, but I hope it at least makes you think.
Until next time.