HOW DIET AND LIFESTYLE CAN CHANGETHE WAY YOUR GENES BEHAVE
Back in 1981, I wrote a book entitled, Recalled By Life: The Story of My Recovery From Cancer, with Anthony Sattilaro, M.D., who used a macrobiotic diet to overcome advanced prostate cancer. Before he adopted the diet, Sattilaro was given perhaps a year to live. His disease had spread throughout his body, including his skull, ribs, sternum, and spine. All his treatment options had been exhausted. His prognosis was hopeless, according to the best medical advice. Yet, after fourteen months on the macrobiotic diet, he was pronounced fully recovered. All his bones had been healed. There was no sign of cancer anywhere in his body.
Before I wrote the book, I published a couple of articles about Sattilaro, one for the East West Journal and another for the Saturday Evening Post. Later, Life Magazine excerpted the book. All of these articles and the book itself attracted enormous attention, the overwhelming majority of which was positive, especially from laypeople in the U.S. and around the world. Indeed, many people who suffered from cancer adopted the macrobiotic diet and made full recoveries from their illnesses.
On the other hand, the medical community was essentially disinterested in Sattilaro’s experience. It was an anecdotal report, they said, and thus proof of nothing. Let’s go back to doing what we were doing – that was essentially their reaction.
MORE IMPORTANT THAN MANY WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE
In fact, Sattilaro’s experience was a remarkable phenomenon and the books and articles were a watershed moment in the history of the natural healing movement. In a more perfect world, Dr. Sattilaro’s recovery should have touched off an explosion of research into the use of diet as a therapy against cancer. After all, the medical fight against cancer, at least to this point, has been largely a failure, especially when you consider all the billions of dollars spent on medical research, and all the lives lost in the interim.
Just as horrifying, perhaps, is the fact that treatment is often used on people who should never have been operated on, or given chemotherapy drugs. For example, back in March of this year, researchers reported that regular prostate screening tests were not saving lives. On the contrary, the tests were leading to unprecedented numbers of false or inaccurate diagnoses, and even encouraged many unnecessary procedures. Over-eager surgeons have been using the PSA tests, for example, to rush people into operating rooms and perform surgeries that were never needed. Either the people didn’t have cancer, or their cancers were slow-growing and low risk. Unfortunately, all too many of those patients were left impotent or incontinent or both.
Meanwhile, three trends have been occurring throughout the world that should have been getting a lot more attention from the medical profession. The first is that the body of scientific evidence supporting the use of a plant-based diet in both the prevention and treatment of cancer has been mounting. In fact, that evidence is so enormous, and so blatantly obvious, that the only explanation for the medical establishment’s resistance to the facts must be that they see dietary therapy as a threat to its enormous income.
Second, more and more people are using diet as part of their treatment against illness, including cancer, and often with great success.
And third, the cost of health care is now out of control. If Barack Obama cannot bring health care costs into line over the next four years, the U.S. may become bankrupt. And as we have seen during the past six months, if the U.S. economy falls, so too will the economies for much of the rest of the world.
THE EVIDENCE JUST GETS STRONGER
All of which brings us to two recent studies done by Dean Ornish, M.D., who used a plant-based diet to treat men with prostate cancer.
Before I go into those studies, it’s important to remember that researchers over the past 20 years have been asserting that cancers of the prostate and breast are essentially the same disease. One occurs in men, the other more commonly in women. But both arise from essentially the same conditions and both appear to respond to changes in diet and lifestyle. (About which, more in a moment.)
Okay, back to Ornish and his two studies.
The first we should discuss is the more recent experiment, which was published in the medical journal, Lancet Oncology (November 2008), and in the Procedures of the National Academy of Sciences.
Ornish and his colleagues studied the effects of a plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle on 30 men, all of them with proven prostate cancer. All the men decided to forego conventional medical treatment and instead adopted a diet composed of whole grains, fresh vegetables, beans, soy products, and fruit. The men also adopted a moderate exercise program that consisted mainly of walking a half-hour per day, along with a daily practice of meditation. Yes, the men lost weight, as expected, and their blood pressure dropped significantly. But biopsies done on the prostates of the men revealed dramatic changes in the behavior of as many as 500 genes. Forty-eight of those genes became more active, while another 453 were turned off.
What is the significance of that? The 48 genes that were turned on were all health-promoting genes, including those that directly fight cancer – especially cancers of the prostate and breast -- while the 453 that were turned off were genes that promote disease, including the onset and growth of breast and prostate cancers.
Also remarkable was the fact that these changes took place after just three months on the diet, exercise, and meditation regimen.
Ornish is the head of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, and a best-selling author of several books, including Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease.
One of the important points to emerge from his study, Ornish said, was that so-called “bad” genes are not a guarantee of disease, as so many people believe. On the contrary, diet and lifestyle can change the way genes behave. As Ornish told reporters after the study was published, “It's an exciting finding because so often people say, 'Oh, it's all in my genes, what can I do?' Well, it turns out you may be able to do a lot."
Ornish went on to say that people can now tell themselves that, “In just three months, I can change hundreds of my genes simply by changing what I eat and how I live?' That's pretty exciting.”
EARLIER STUDIES POINTED TO THE SAME CONCLUSION
Back in 2005, Ornish did another study in which he placed 93 men with proven prostate cancer on the same dietary regimen composed of whole grains, fresh vegetables, beans, soy bean products, and fruit. The men also walked six days a week. This group was called the experimental group, because they received the treatment protocol.
Ornish also established a control group of men with prostate cancer who did not make any changes in diet and lifestyle, nor did they adopt standard medical treatment for their illnesses. He followed both groups – the treatment and control groups -- for one year.
During that year, several men from the control group dropped out of the study because their cancers were progressing. They now required medical treatment, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Over all, the control group members saw their cancer markers go up, meaning their illnesses were progressing.
On the other hand, not a single member of the treatment group saw their cancer markers go up. On the contrary, most saw their indicators drop and several on the diet and lifestyle program saw their cancers go into remission.
Ornish told the Washington Post that the study was nothing short of revolutionary. “This is the first randomized trial showing that progression of prostate cancer can be stopped or perhaps even reversed by changing diet and lifestyle alone,” Ornish said.
Once the study was concluded, Ornish took yet another step in his attempt to discover why the two groups had such different fates. He took live cancer cells and placed them in beakers containing the blood from the two different groups in his study – the control group and the experimental group.
The blood of the control group only weakly inhibited the growth of the cancer. That growth was reduced by a paltry 9 percent, the researchers reported. In other words, the cancer continued to grow, but just at a little slower rate. (This very likely revealed that the blood still possessed some immunity and cancer fighting function.)
However, when live cancer cells were placed in beakers containing the blood from men on the plant-based diet, the cancer cells began dying. Ornish and his colleagues found that the blood from the experimental group inhibited the growth of the cancer by an average of 70 percent, and some were destroyed altogether. Moreover, Ornish discovered that those men who adhered the closest to the plant-based diet produced blood that was the most lethal against cancer.
All of which meant that the cancer fighting systems in the experimental group were growing stronger, and were able to aggressively fight the disease.
As the scientific instruments become more sophisticated, and researchers are able to peer deeply into the world of the genome, scientists are discovering that food has the power to turn genes on and off.
Last summer, British researchers showed that broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables – such as collard, kale, bok choy, cabbage, and watercress -- has been the ability to turn on and turn off literally hundreds of genes that directly affect a person’s ability to prevent and overcome cancer.
After conducting these two studies, Dr. Ornish made the point that the implications of his research are not limited to men with prostate cancer, but can be applied to other cancers, as well, especially to breast cancer.
PROSTATE AND BREAST CANCER: COMMON ROOTS
In fact, researchers have maintained for years that prostate and breast cancer are essentially the same disease – one occurring in men, the other more commonly in women. Both prostate and breast cancer are, in a great many cases, inflammatory diseases. Both depend on the presence of similar chemical factors in the blood. Both arise from similar dietary patterns. And for those with either disease, diet and lifestyle change appears to extend survival time, and in many cases are associated with remissions from the illness.
Here’s an overview of the key factors that drive both diseases, as well as many other forms of cancer.
SUGAR: A FUEL FOR DISEASE, AND A TRIGGER FOR CHEMICAL CHAOS
Given cancer’s characteristic rapid growth cycle, it’s no wonder that the illness needs lots of fuel in order to thrive. And no fuel serves it better than sugar. Processed foods and refined sugar not only provides lots of excess energy – far more energy than the body can burn – but it also triggers chemical changes throughout the system that support cancer’s growth.
The first of these is the production of insulin, the hormone made by the pancreas that permits blood sugar, or glucose, to enter cells and be used as fuel. Insulin is essential for life. But when the hormone becomes elevated and excessive – as it does when we consume too many processed foods, along with too many calories – the insulin becomes a mitogen, or a trigger for cell division and cellular proliferation. Which is exactly what cancer needs in order to grow.
When insulin levels become elevated, they also stimulate the liver to produce growth hormone, which is used by cancerous cells and tumors to stimulate additional growth.
The sweet foods that are the most dangerous when it comes to producing cancer appear to be pastries and ice cream. In the October 2005 issue of Annals of Oncology, researchers examined the eating patterns of 2500 women with breast cancer. They then compared those dietary patterns with 2500 women who did not have breast cancer, but served as a control group. The researchers discovered that there were remarkable differences in the quantities of “biscuits, brioches, cakes, and ice cream,” as well as “sugar, honey, jam, marmalade, and chocolate” that the two groups ate.
“We found a direct association between breast cancer risk and consumption of sweet foods with high glycemic index and [high calorie] load, which increase insulin and insulin growth factors,” the scientists reported.
The glycemic index shows how rapidly a food is absorbed into a person’s blood stream. It also shows how many calories are provided by a specific food. Foods that have a high glycemic index, and high calorie load, include processed foods, such as white flour products -- bread, white rolls, and pastries – as well as chocolate, candy, and soft drinks.
EXCESS WEIGHT AND HORMONES
As body weight increases, fat cells become factories for producing hormones that cause both healthy and cancerous tissues to grow. These fat cells also produce high levels of inflammatory compounds, such as interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor. This combination of hormone and inflammatory compounds help drive the illness.
It is now well established that both men and women who are overweight are far more likely to suffer prostate and breast cancers. On the other hand, women with breast cancer who lose weight while following a health-promoting diet live longer.
WEIGHT LOSS, ADIPONECTIN, AND CANCER CELL DEATH
Part of the reason for this improvement in survival is that when fat cells begin to shrink, they produce an entirely different set of chemicals, most notably a substance called adiponectin.
Adiponectin fights cancer in several different ways. First, it surrounds a tumor and cuts off its blood supply, a talent known as anti-angiogenesis. Second, it causes cancer cells to initiate programmed cell death, or apoptosis.
For who are overweight and low in adiponectin, the dangers may be particularly acute. In the November 2003 issue of the medical journal, Clinical Cancer Research, Japanese scientists stated the following;
Our “results suggest that the low serum (blood) adiponectin levels are significantly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and that tumors arising in women with the low serum adiponectin levels are more likely to show [a] biologically aggressive phenotype. The association between obesity and breast cancer risk might be partly explained by adiponectin.”
With weight loss, however, adiponectin levels can be elevated and restored within weeks, thus bringing about all the health-restoring benefits of the substance.
WHEN IS ENOUGH EVIDENCE ENOUGH?
Should it come as any surprise to anyone that the same diet and lifestyle that reverses heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other illnesses could also play a major role in the treatment and reversal of cancer?
The truth is, there’s still so much to learn about diet and lifestyle’s effects on health, and much study is needed for us to fully understand how these natural methods can be used to protect and improve health.
Yet, how much scientific evidence must accumulate before scientists stop blindly focusing on chemotherapy drugs as the singular answer to cancer, and start pouring more research dollars into diet’s role as a treatment for the common cancers? Or to put it another way, how much scientific evidence will health authorities need before they embrace the obvious?
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