My mom was about a month away from her 60th birthday when she died from multiple myeloma, a deadly type of blood cancer.
I was just 27 years old at the time. I had been working at Amgen as a Medicinal Chemist to discover new ways to treat cancer through “targeted” therapies. Even if we had an effective drug to treat this type of cancer, it would have been too late for my mom. Her cancer was too aggressive—within months of her diagnosis, she experienced extreme pain and suffering, and then it killed her.
This was a huge turning point in my life, as I was very close to my mom.
I began to shift my scientific thinking from cancer treatment to cancer prevention. As I began to apply my knowledge of organic chemistry to food and human nutrition, it became clear that many diseases today are highly preventable through dietary changes alone.
I left “big pharma” for an academic career, I became a yoga and mindfulness meditation teacher, and I began to focus my research on the “science of food” and disease prevention through positive dietary and lifestyle habits.
What is cancer?
Simply put, cancer cells grow at a much faster rate than normal cells.
They actually used to be normal cells, but some malfunction in the cellular machinery causes the cell to grow at a much faster rate. For example, “carcinogens” or cancer-causing agents can create mutations in DNA that ultimately lead to the transformation of a normal cell to a cancerous state. This faster cell growth means more nutrients and more energy are required to keep up with the rapid cell division and replication; therefore faster cellular metabolism.
To accommodate the energetic demands of the tumor, most, if not all, cancer cells shift to an altered state of metabolism described as the “Warburg effect.”
First observed back in 1923, this altered cellular state in cancer cells can not only metabolize glucose (sugar) up to 200 times faster than normal cells to provide energy for the tumor to survive, but it also uses sugar in a different way, converting glucose to lactate (instead of pyruvate in normal cells).
It is now being recognized that this reprogramming of cellular metabolism is a hallmark of cancer and, therefore, a viable therapeutic intervention point.
Although it may not seem immediately obvious, now you can begin to understand how diet plays a critical role when it comes to cancer. And sugar specifically plays a unique role.
Glucose, the fundamental form of “sugar,” is the primary source of energy for humans. Total carbohydrates generally make up about 45 to 65 percent of a typical human diet.
Remember there are different words for what we mean by sugar, which could include carbohydrate, glucose, or sucrose. Table sugar is sucrose, which is a fructose and a glucose molecule linked together. (Not to be confused with sucralose, a cleverly named synthetic sweetener also known as Splenda.)
Unfortunately, humans do love sugar.
This comes as no surprise since our brains are wired with a reward system when we find sugar, which used to be a rare encounter in nature.
With such easy access to sugar in our modern times, especially in concentrated doses, many Americans have become diabetic and obese. The link between high sugar intake and the high occurrence of diabetes and obesity that now plague our country is well-known. But perhaps not as obvious, is how sugar affects cancer growth.
Here I’d like to share some key information on what we know now about cancer on the molecular level so we can understand the link between sugar and cancer.
The body operates with the help of millions of proteins sending and receiving “signals” as part of a complex network of interconnected pathways. Cancer cells communicate using a different set of signals than normal cells, promoting their survival and resistance to cell death.
The processes called apoptosis (cell death) and angiogenesis (synthesis of new blood vessels) are two well-studied “signals” in the grand orchestration of signaling events that are involved in keeping cancer cells alive. Dr. Thomas Graeber, professor at UCLA, published work in 2012 investigating how glucose deprivation in cancer cells activates anticancer signals leading to cell death. These studies and others offer insight that provides even more support for cancer patients to adopt a low-carb diet.
Excess sugar causes inflammation. As we well know, sugar activates the insulin-signaling response. Once it receives the signal, the pancreas releases insulin to process the glucose present in the bloodstream for immediate energy use or for fat storage. Sugar is also connected to estrogen signaling (which is less well-known), and both signals are connected to cell growth.
In the clinic, “evidence exists that chronically elevated blood glucose, insulin, and IGF-1 levels facilitate tumorigenesis (tumor growth) and worsens the outcome in cancer patients.” This is in part due to the acidic environment that is created and the “inflammatory signals” that accompany hyperglycemia when the body exists in a state of high blood sugar.
Now, it is well-established that inflammation and cancer are intimately linked. In fact, anti-inflammatory drugs are often employed as part of modern cancer treatment regimes, and active research continues on the connection between inflammation and cancer.
Our large consumption of refined sugars and highly-processed, grain-based foods signals our bodies to turn on inflammation and to feed tumors via the Warburg effect. No doubt cancer cells love sugar. Cutting off their sugar supply will slow down the rate of tumor growth and may even activate the signals to turn on cell death mechanisms.
Create an anticancer environment in the body:
Cancer prevention is the key here, so all of us who are healthy can take steps to create an anticancer environment in the body that will make it difficult for cancer cells to grow.
If you already have cancer, it is imperative to incorporate strict dietary interventions to lower sugar intake as part of any treatment plan.
Where does sugar come from in our food? Sugar comes in the form of bread, rice, potatoes, corn, and many other “grains”—the so-called complex carbohydrates. Fruits also contain sugar in the form of simple sugars like glucose, fructose, and sucrose. The especially dangerous refined and synthetic sugars like high-fructose corn syrup are present in almost every processed food product in your supermarket.
To lower carbohydrate intake, avoid all processed foods and fill up on organic vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, fish, lean organic meat, legumes, and healthy fats, like coconut oil and omega-3 rich foods. Eat few grains, and eat fruit and dairy in moderation. Sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages should also be avoided.
Replacing sugar with other sweeteners like Stevia or Splenda is not the answer either. Our bodies have not evolved to eat processed and sugary “food-like substances.” Our bodies want whole foods that contain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, antioxidants, and various other nutrients we need to nourish our body and our immune system to kill cancer cells.
Where sugar meets cancer is a story that exemplifies the intimate connection between diet and disease, a connection that cannot be overlooked when treating cancer of any kind.
Author: Dr. Lisa Julian
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron