Let Food be Thy Cancer Avengers
According to the Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Registry Report 2015, around 35 new cancer cases are diagnosed every day. Through 2015 to 2017, the percentage of total death in Singapore contributed by cancers is ranked number 1 among other causes like stroke, heart diseases and diabetes, with 29.1% out of 20,905 death cases in the year of 2017. The alarming data necessitates the summon of avengers that can salvage us from cancer occurrence. Among the modifiable risk factors of cancers, dietary pattern is an important determinant in influencing cancer occurrence.
Every second, our cells are exposed to different triggers or substances called carcinogens that can cause cancer and DNA mutation. The complex interaction between the genetic makeup, how a person is exposed to a carcinogen in terms of length and intensity, will lead to genetic mutation that may result in cancer. Usually, mutated cells can be spotted and killed by the immune system. However, when the body is unable to cope with the prolonged exposure to high intensity of carcinogens and equally important, counteracting the damage, the mutated cells will have the opportunity to grow and may develop into a tumour.
Different types of cancer possess different natures. In general, cancer cells use some, or most, of the following complex and multidimensional approaches to grow and develop in the body.
Resisting cell death by evading immune destruction and growth suppressors
Disrupting energy production and nutrient metabolisms through deranged pro-inflammatory cytokines productions
Invasion and metastasis (spreading to different organs) by the means of adhesion molecules, such as galectin-3 surface adhesion molecules
Promoting inflammation through the activation of pro-inflammatory enzymes like cyclooxygenase enzymes (COX-1, COX-2), 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX)
Inducing growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis)
Although the development of cancer is terrifying, emerging studies have shown that different types of foods can act as avengers that counteract the strategies cancer cells use to proliferate in the body. Let us have a closer look at these superheroes.
The root of the turmeric plant is rich in a polyphenol known as curcumin. Curcumin, the phytochemical that gives the yellow colour to turmeric, is well known for its powerful anti-inflammatory and oxidative stress-fighting properties. According to the National Cancer Institute, curcumin has reached the stage of clinical trials. Curcumin impedes the multistep of cancer development by:
Inducing programmed cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells
Inhibiting many of the growth factors and other molecules that promote cancer cells’ replication
Blocking the inflammatory process
Suppressing the growth of cancer stem cells
Supporting the immune system to kill cancer cells
Different studies have shown that that 4 – 12g a day of curcumin have anti-inflammatory antioxidant and anticancer properties. Unfortunately, the curcumin content of turmeric is not high. Even pure turmeric powder, that has the highest content of curcumin, only provides 3.14% curcumin by weight. Furthermore, curcumin is fat-soluble and has low bioavailability in the body. Try to combine whole turmeric with black pepper and ginger in fatty meals. The turmeric oil known as turmerone in whole turmeric, ginger oil in ginger, and piperine in black pepper will greatly enhance curcumin’s absorption.
Alternatively, opt for bioavailable curcumin dietary supplements that ensure absorption in the body.
Drinking green tea is an important culture in traditional Japanese diet. Interestingly, Japanese have both the highest smoking rate and the lowest cancer rate, among the developed countries. This may be attributed to the high green tea consumption, among other traditional dietary habits like frequent soy and seaweed intake, and low-fat diet.
Green tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) are rich in catechins, a group of polyphenols, which include epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin (EGC) and epicatechin gallate (ECG). Among these, EGCG is particularly important for cancer prevention.
Brewed green tea and matcha green tea powder are among the 2 foods that have the highest content in catechins. This is credited to the manufacturing process of these foods. Green tea is made from fresh, unfermented tea leaves; as the oxidation of catechins is minimal, they retain high levels of these antioxidants.
Similar to curcumin, ECGC slays tumour growth by slashing angiogenesis, metastasis, inflammation and development of cancer stem cells. It helps to boost immunity too. In addition, EGCG may inhibit the growth factor receptors of breast cancer cells and reduces the production of dihydrotestosterone (DHT), the culprit in prostate cancer.
How much of this cancer avenger should we obtain? Many human clinical trials suggested that taking 500mg EGCG per day helps to protect against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. This amount is equivalent to drinking around 5 – 6 cups of green tea or 2 teaspoons of matcha powder per day.
β-glucans are a group of soluble fibre. Different β-glucans have different structural properties, which may influence their functions and activities in the body upon consumption. Foods that contain relatively higher β-glucans include certain types of mushrooms (like reishi, shiitake, maitake, white button), sea vegetables, microalgae (especially a unique microalgae Euglena gracilis), cereals (oats, barley), and some fruits.
On the other hand, probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts at the right place, give health benefits. Our digestive system is home to roughly 100 trillion bacteria. In the intestine, a balance between good and bad bacteria is important for health. Recent studies found that the imbalance of gut bacteria types may play a role in the development of obesity, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers or even some mental disorders! Though they are tiny, the healthy population and growth of this squad in the gut work wonders to our health. The factors that impact their growth include low fibre diet; diet high in processed food, unhealthy fats, sugar, salt; lack of physical activity; smoking and drinking alcohol; stressful life; and inadequate rest.
When the probiotics and ingestible β-glucans reach the gut, this dynamic duo works hand-in-hand to prevent cancers through the following channels:
β-glucans serve as prebiotics, food for the probiotics, in the gut, enhancing the healthy growth of probiotics.
The good gut bacteria feeds on β-glucans and other soluble fibre by the means of fermentation and releases short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). Seems like a by-product, the mildly acidic SCFA will make the gut environment unfavourable to the growth of bad bacteria and viruses. In terms of cancer prevention, SCFA can modulate and improve immune response. SCFA can be the fuel for intestinal cells, improving gut integrity. SCFA may inhibit colorectal cancer cells proliferation and increase cell death.
β-glucans can penetrate the gut barrier and sits on the specific receptors on the immune cells in the inner surface of the intestine. The activation of the receptors will in turn enhance the communication and growth of the immune cells, improving immunity.
Healthy microbiome optimises digestion, nutrient absorption and metabolism, reduces inflammation, which may help to improve nutritional status, immunity and eventually, prevent cancers.
Probiotics help to reduce the bad bacteria like E. coli, H. pylori, Streptococcus bovis, that damage intestinal cells by attaching to them, discharging toxins, causing inflammation which lead to DNA mutations.
With this in mind, charge your intestinal flora with this mighty dual by including probiotic foods and foods containing β-glucans in your diet. Look for strains from the lactobacillus and bifidobacteria clans, in sufficient amount, as they can withstand the stomach acid to reach the intestine where we want them to be. Alternatively, consider supplements that have enteric coating capsules – a layer that protects the probiotics from the stomach acid.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, siew pak choy, choy sum, kale, Brussels sprouts, contain many powerful cancer-fighting phytochemicals, besides other vitamins and minerals. They are rich in indole-3 carbinol (I3C), sulforaphane, glucosinolates, Di-indolyl-methane, isothiocyanate. In similar manner, cruciferous vegetables can help to guard against DNA mutation, stimulate the suicidal signals in cancerous cells and collapse tumour blood supply. The main distinction of cruciferous vegetables is that they enhance the genetic expression of important detoxifying enzymes that neutralise many environmental toxins. Also, I3C helps to prevent the growth of oestrogen-dependent tumours (like breast and ovarian cancers) by promoting healthy oestrogen metabolism. In men, I3C and isothiocyanate may help to prevent prostate cancer by minimising stimulation by the harmful DHT.
Vitamin D, the sunny cancer avenger, is an active hormone made by the skin when exposed to strong sunlight. Mostly indoors between 11am to 3pm and not getting enough vitamin D from food? Having darker skin tone? Getting older? If your answers are mostly yes, then you may be one among the 50% of the world’s population having insufficient amount of vitamin D in the body.
Virtually every tissue type in our body possess receptors that can be activated by vitamin D for optimal functioning. When vitamin D is taken at adequate amount (for example, 1000IU per day, depending on individuals) and reaching blood level of 30 ng/mL, vitamin D can function like a hormone, sitting on the receptors on immune cells, augmenting their communications, growth and differentiation; reducing production of pro-inflammatory interleukin-6 (IL-6) which altogether linked to cancer prevention.
Cancerous cells have receptors for vitamin D too. As oppose to normal cells, the activation of vitamin D receptors on cancerous cells can control cancer cell growth, proliferation and spread. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency may lead to increased risk of colon, prostate and breast cancers.
Since vitamin D deficiency is widespread nowadays, it is advisable to test your blood vitamin D level and replenish accordingly.
The Dark Felons
After learning about the different dietary superheroes, it is time to reveal the treacherous felons that cause cancers. Smoking, processed meat, charred and barbecued meats, salted foods, excessive red meat intake, excessive alcohol intake, obesity, physical inactivity have cancer-causing potentials. Try making lifestyle changes that bring these villains to their endgame!
Now for the Endgame – Assembling the Avengers
Besides the aforementioned cancer avengers, don’t forget to include other vegetables and fruits, beans and legumes, wholegrains, herbs and spices in your daily diet. Plants like those in the allium family (onions, leeks, garlics, shallots), grapes and berries, capsicum family (chilis, bell peppers), tubers, nuts and seed, will be able to deliver various rangers joining forces in your body to fight against cancers. Furthermore, replace oily cuts of meat and processed meat with fatty fishes and lean protein, prepared in healthy oil, low-fat cooking methods.
Besides enjoyment and daily nourishment, let food be thy CANCER AVENGERS!
Article written by,
Health Products & Consulting Pte Ltd