May 14, 2015

Metabolic Theory of Cancer: Speculation on the Causes of Cancer -- and How to Mitigate Them (Pt.3)

Graphic modified from Seyfried, et al. 
Carcinogenesis. 2014 Mar; 35(3): 515–527.

The potential cancer cause we’ll look at today is viruses. Some cancers are known to be viral in origin, and this makes total sense. Viruses hijack a cell’s replication machinery, right? They hijack the replication mechanisms such that the virus’ own DNA or RNA gets copied like crazy, so we’re left with lots of cells that contain tons of viral DNA/RNA. I am not a microbiologist, nor do I play one on TV. But I have to assume that having lots of viral DNA or RNA floating around in a cell probably isn’t good for mitochondria. Either way, if certain viruses do cause cancer, my guess would be that they do so by affecting mitochondrial function.

As a potential cause of cancer, viruses can strike people of any age. I suspect viruses are one of the primary drivers of cancer in children. I can’t imagine much else causing it. Like I said, older people have had many more years to abuse their mitochondria via diet, lifestyle, and unknown environmental exposures. But little kids? Not so much. Something else has got to be driving cancer in younger people. (And like I've said before, it’s entirely possible there’s a role for maternal & paternal health/diet at the time of conception and during gestation, as well as environmental exposures in utero, but, like the authors of the paper I mentioned in an earlier post said, if you think I’m about to blame the parents of a child with cancer for causing that child’s cancer, you are crazier than a vegan at a Brazilian churrascaria.)

In terms of prevention,  We can’t do much about this except to make sure our immune systems are up to snuff. I have said before that most of us probably “get cancer” all the time. We have cells behaving badly and doing wacky things left and right, but our immune systems go to work and kick those misbehaving cells to the curb. (Or the cells engage in apoptosis, commit suicide, and save our immune systems the trouble.) So how might we try to ensure our immune systems are up to the task? I was originally going have a separate post (or two or three!) about cancer prevention, but it seems more logical to address potential prevention/mitigation strategies in the same post as I write about putative causes. (I would be embarrassed to admit how much time Ive spent going back and forth over this issue, about which most of you probably dont care one way or the other.)

Here are my thoughts. You’ll notice there aren’t any important links here. That’s because this is just me thinking out loud. Maybe some of my thoughts will make sense to you; maybe others will seem ridiculous. Good thing none of this is medical advice, then. (I promise, I’ll get back to writing more science-based posts once we come out of these cause/prevention speculation weeds. I just didn't want to say that "x" is a potential cause of cancer and then not present some possible mitigation strategies.)

Also: allow me to make it clear that in this post and the next few, where we’re speculating about possible causes of cancer, nothing I write should be taken as me “blaming” anyone for getting cancer. I’ve tried to make it clear that for everything we think we know about cancer, there’s a whole lot we don’t know, and just like with diet & exercise, people can do “all the right things,” and still get smacked upside the head with the opposite result of that which they were aiming for. So when we talk about the immune system, diet, exercise, and hypoxia, I am not implying that anyone with cancer did or did not engage in certain behaviors. All this is, is speculation about how people might—might—go about making their bodies more robust and resilient, so that when they do inevitably encounter potential cancer-causing “things,” they might have a better chance of trucking right along and not even noticing.

(Can you tell I’m pretty much the least confrontational person in the world? Look at all this timid language. Part of it is, I don’t want to get sued. And part of it is, I don’t want to invite any crazy Internet attacks or Twitter feuds, should anyone get the wrong impression that I am claiming I know how to prevent cancer.)

Okay! With that out of the way, here's caveat number two: 

Let me say here that out of everything I like to think I know about the human body, the immune system is what I understand the least. In fact. I attended a seminar about autoimmune conditions recently, and I was fairly lost most of the time. (T-cells, B-cells, monocytes, neutrophils, basophils, eosinophils, antigen-presenting cells … it kind of makes my head spin.) So this is really just a very general perspective on how to not catch every little bug that makes the rounds at your office or your kid’s preschool. 

  • Good nutrition: Vitamin C, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and more – we know these nutrients play a role in bolstering the immune system. So does adequate protein intake, since antibodies are made of protein. Also, it probably doesn’t hurt to keep sugar consumption low. When your body is “fighting off” constant influxes of sucrose, it has fewer resources to keep you strong against real threats. 
  • Good digestive function: The GI tract is one of our primary barriers to invading pathogens. Saliva and stomach acid help to neutralize bad bugs. (There’s a reason we all have an innate instinct to lick our wounds. It has nothing to do with liking the taste of blood, unless you’re a vampire. Saliva is antimicrobial.) And if you’re reading my blog, you’re probably already quite familiar with the concept of “leaky gut,” and how a small intestine with compromised tight junctions will let incompletely digested food particles and other “stuff” into the bloodstream, with potentially disastrous consequences. But before that even happens, robust stomach acid should be killing off any really dangerous bugs. So yeah, a digestive system firing on all cylinders is a huge part of staying well.
  • Strengthen immunity: I think of the immune system like a muscle: give it a workout, and it’ll get stronger. How might we do this? A good place to start might be not dousing ourselves in antibacterial gels and sterilizing every single substance we come in contact with. Ever notice how the kids whose mothers basically have them living in germ-free bubbles actually seem to get sicker than kids who are exposed to more “stuff?” I’m not saying we should quit washing our hands altogether (using normal soap, that is), but this obsession we have with everything being individually wrapped, pasteurized, irradiated, and otherwise devoid of microbes that can “train” our immune system to deal with pathogens has got to stop. I’m not about to go licking the jungle gym at the local elementary school, but as a society, we have become insanely germ-phobic, and it’s to our detriment.   

Dr. Michael Ruscio has a great analogy for why autoimmune conditions are on the rise. There are many reasons, but one is that we no longer allow our immune systems to train and get accustomed to fighting things off. He uses the analogy of infantry troops. If you want your troops to be good marksmen, you have to give them adequate training. Let them get familiar with their weapons, send them to the firing range, give them tons of shooting practice, and they’ll become great shots. But send a couple of guys (or gals) into battle never having held a weapon, and they’ll end up shooting all over the place, having no control over what they hit. Maybe they’ll get lucky and hit the target, but they’ll probably also cause a ton of innocent bystander damage in the process. This is what might happen with autoimmunity—an immune system that has been coddled and protected, and never taken out of its shrink wrap, will have no idea what to go after when it’s unleashed into the world, so when a crisis erupts, it’ll go after everything, including host/self tissue.

Beyond good nutrition, here are some other ways I think we can boost our immune systems: 

  • Spend time outdoors: I hypothesized toward the end of this very long post that perhaps vitamin D levels are simply a proxy for time spent outdoors. Sick and healthy people seem to run the gamut of D levels, and frankly, I’m not sure anyone knows what’s optimal for any of us. Generally speaking, most of us probably need more than we’re getting, but I still think no one’s really sure what the deal is with D. (Should a 75-year-old male native of Cameroon have the same 1,25-OH-D level as a 16-year-old Norwegian girl? I dont know, and frankly, I dont think anyone else does, either.) What I do know is, being outdoors is a great way to breathe in “stuff” that might sensitize & strengthen the immune system. It’s probably best to spend time in a green, woodsy area or on a farm, if you can, but even in an urban area, you’re still going to breathe in more “stuff” when you’re outside than when you’re indoors. Soil microbes, dirt, bugs, pollen, animal dander—it’s all good! (If you're already highly allergic to these things, I can’t help you. I have heard, though, that there are holistically-minded allergists who can help de-sensitize you to certain things.) Total stereotype here, but farm kids seem damn near invincible, dont they? My hunch is, they get exposed to way more plant and animal matter than the average urban crumb-crusher, and their systems learn to deal with it.
Speaking from personal experience, I almost always feel better after being outside. This is true even at night, so while there’s definitely something to be said for getting sunlight, I don’t dismiss the possibility that exposure to fresh air (and all the stuff floating in it) might be beneficial for health. I’ll have lots more to say about this when we get to hypoxia as a potential cause of cancer.   

Okay, so what?

The key thing to know about the lymphatic system is that it has no dedicated pump. Unlike blood, which gets pushed through the blood vessels every time the heart beats, lymph only moves when we do. (Besides the risk for muscle atrophy, this is another reason why bedridden people need to have their limbs moved regularly—so lymph can circulate instead of pooling and stagnating, which results in edema and changes to blood pressure.) I am not one to think we need be in constant motion all day long, and I don’t think “sitting equals death,” for cryin’ out loud, but there’s no doubt we do need to move our bodies, and many of us probably don’t do so frequently enough, nor in enough varied ways. (That said, people who fidget and can’t sit still for two stinkin’ minutes bug the crap out of me, so perhaps this is why I prefer to believe that 30 minutes of sitting on the couch with a book isn’t going to lead anyone to an early grave. [Seriously: is there anyone besides me on this freaking planet capable of holding a clicky pen without clicking it nonstop? If there is, they sure don’t work in my office. #firstworldproblems.]) 

But yeah, back to lymph: Muscle contractions are what moves lymph through the lymphatic vessels. Lymph can deliver helpful immune compounds to tissues that need it, and it also carries away waste and bad immune juju. So we do want to make sure we keep lymph moving now and then. (I warned you this was going to be one of my less-scientific posts...) Some people swear by rebounders and dry brushing for stimulating movement of lymph. I cant comment, since I have no experience with either of these practices, except for when I was a kid and my neighbors had a sweet mini-trampoline in their backyard. Suffice it to say that when I was 8 years old, I wasnt thinking too much about my lymphatic system. If you want to research these, you’re on your own.

  • Keep stress levels low: Cortisol suppresses the immune system. (This is why synthetic corticosteroid drugs are often prescribed for pain relief, especially that associated with autoimmune conditions.) It works something like this: when you’re under a lot of stress, your body perceives that there’s some kind of acute “emergency” in your environment, right? Well, in this state, your body downregulates anything not related to your immediate survival. (Such as digestion, reproduction, and immune function.) If you have to fight or flee, you would be hindered by sniffles, sneezes, aches & pains. During this emergency, your body won’t bother spending precious energy to produce mucus or give you a fever, etc. There are more important priorities, such as getting your butt out of dodge. 

Ever notice that you (or your family members) sometimes get sick during a vacation, or even just a few days off from work or school? That’s because the major stressors go away (at least temporarily), and as the sky-high cortisol levels come back to normal, their immune-suppressing effects go away, too. So all the “stuff” that your immune system was ignoring now has to be dealt with, and with the major stressors gone, the body can marshal the resources to do so. (Remember: when you “get sick,” that’s actually the immune system doing its job, the way it’s supposed to. I’m not saying it’s not pretty cool when you go years without so much as a sniffle, but you have to wonder if something much more scary is brewing under the surface while cortisol keeps everything at bay...)

  • Get hot! The final immune booster I’ll mention here is sweating. I think there’s something to be said for sweating helping us to “release toxins,” since the skin is the body’s largest organ of detoxification. (The liver is the most powerful, but the skin is the largest.) But more than that is what happens inside us when our core temperature rises enough to make us sweat. Think about it this way: a fever is a protective mechanism, right? When the body is trying to fight something off, our core temperature rises, with the goal of killing the invading pathogens. So there might be something said for launching a kind of preemptive strike, by artificially inducing a fever in hopes of killing any bugs before they even have the chance to rise to the level of making us feel symptoms of illness.

    There are a bunch of ways to do this. The first is, just go someplace really hot and stay there for a while. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many cultures have traditions of sweat lodges and hot springs. Could it be these people knew it wasn’t a bad idea to force themselves to sweat once in a while? There are still hot springs around the world (super popular in Korea), and the modern incarnation of a Native American sweat lodge is a sauna. Of course, another way to raise your temperature temporarily is to exercise and actually earn that sweat. Since I don’t have easy access to a sauna or hot spring, exercising is my preferred method for getting’ my sweat on, and lemme tell ya, if you’d ever seen me at the gym, you would believe me when I tell you I sweat. (It’s kind of gross, actually, but someone once told me it’s a sign of good hydration. *Shrug.*) It’s easy to work up a sweat doing almost anything in the summer, but even in cold weather, I can work up a ridiculous sweat. (For example, the past few winters, I went for long walks several times a week, bundled up in about a zillion layers, with the intention of getting fresh air, moving my body, and sweating a ton. Three immune boosters in one!) Some people also swear by dousing themselves with ice cold water right after taking a hot shower, because the sudden shock to the system between the two extremes mobilizes heat shock proteins (HSPs) that may have beneficial effects on the immune system. (HSPs may also play a role in cancer therapies.)

That’s it for now. The next potential cancer-causing agents we’ll look at are known and suspected carcinogens.

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Amy, love you're writing (content & style!) So must confess to only giving a cursory rinse to organic veg & fruit. (Back in the day, the prevailing wisdom was that everyone has to eat a ton of dirt). What are your thoughts?
    Kind regards

    1. Thanks, Carole. :) To be honest, I'm not a huge washer of produce, even the conventionally grown stuff. I have a salad spinner for lettuce and other greens, but that's mostly to get all the sand & dirt off -- not because I'm scared of eating a little bit of soil, but because it's gritty, and it can do a number on the teeth, not to mention the enjoyment of the meal. ;-) With regard to pesticides, I'm not sure a cursory washing is enough to do much good anyway, and I'm not about to spend a dedicated amount of time scrubbing vegetables with a diluted bleach solution, know what I mean? I tend to rinse celery pretty thoroughly, mostly because I can usually see bugs lurking down near the bottoms of the stalks -- sometimes even still alive! (But I kind of like that, to be honest -- reminds me that this was, in fact, in the ground at some point, and hasn't been embalmed and preserved with all kinds of additives to make bugs *not* want to eat it. Sometimes insects are smarter than humans!)

      That said, I don't think anyone's being silly if they prefer to wash their food thoroughly. But I think it's worth noting that certified "organic" foods are not necessarily *free* of pesticides; they just use pesticides that are permitted under the current laws of organic standards. (I'll be talking about this in the next post.)

      I tend to be even less concerned about washing when I get produce from the farmers' market. Even if they use pesticides, it's probably far less than the corporate mega-farms.

      Maybe I'm playing Russian roulette with my health, and people would think I'm nuts. To each their own. ;-)

    2. I wonder, too, the degree to which pesticides are *absorbed* into produce, rather than them just settling on the outer skin after spraying. It seems like the particles would settle, the crops would get watered, and the pesticides would wash down into the soil, from where they would be taken up by the plants. I could be completely wrong about this, but if I'm right, then washing the outside might not accomplish all that much.

  3. Great post, really informative, I never really hear or read talk of the lymphatic system and its role, nor how exercise boosts it. Really powerful stuff to know. Thank you for writing this!
    (Off to get my sweat on now, in a power vinyasa session)

  4. Except for the ice cold water stuff (wanna kill me??), great info on our immune system, thanks again !

  5. this is so awesome, I only had to time to skim it, but plan to read it bette this weekend - thank you so much for the info here -

  6. This is sad story here, well known Aussie cancer blogger using alternative therapies..

  7. have you heard about tricked-out HIV viri used to f*ck up cancer cells?? Can't make that stuff up hahaha

  8. Hi. Just started but have to comment on you below phrase

    "it’s entirely possible there’s a role for maternal & paternal health/diet at the time of conception and during gestation, as well as environmental exposures in utero"

    Amazingly this is exactly what Weston Price found but in terms of physical degeneration in primitives. If the parents were still on primitive diets the children were healthy. If the parents had adopted western diets i.e. sugar and white flour products before children were conceived then the change was evident in the children's physiology, i.e. smaller stature, malformed dental arches, irregular teeth eruptions due to smaller space, diminished chest cavities and much higher susceptibility to disease, particularly Tuberculosis which was a scourge in Price's time, whereas the parents were typically immune. So maybe cancer is banging on the door most of the time but can't get in. Once you weaken the system through diet it has a chance.

  9. About this part:
    [Seriously: is there anyone besides me on this freaking planet capable of holding a clicky pen without clicking it nonstop? If there is, they sure don’t work in my office. #firstworldproblems.])

    .... cracking up here. I so identify with that. Why can`t people sit still? There is a co-worker who cannot stop making annoying noises all day long, and he drives me crazy. My husband cannot even hold my hand without making some sort of repetitive movement. So i totally hear you on the subject!