According to the American Cancer Society, 2016 is going to be a rough year for the nearly 1.7 million Americans who are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year. And it’s even worse for the nearly 600,000 who are expected to die from cancer-related causes this year.
Those are some frightening statistics.
And while death rates from cancer have been declining do to better awareness, early detection and improved treatments, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the US (topped only by heart disease), accounting for 1 in every 4 deaths and 1 in every 7 deaths worldwide.
There’s plenty of research on which demographics are more susceptible to cancer, but the bottom line is cancer knows no bounds.
Multi-billions are spent annually, both domestically and globally, to pin down the actual cause of cancer so it can be cured.
But as medical research continues to broaden our understanding of DNA and cancer formation, and as treatment options continue to be discovered, perhaps one of the most promising cancer therapies today is one that was hypothesized in the 1920s – sugar starvation.
Modern cancer research began to unfold in the early half of the 20th century when German scientists discovered abnormal cellular growth associated with altered chromosomes. One scientist in particular, Dr. Otto Warburg, who would become a highly decorated and accomplished Nobel Prize winner, discovered that cancer cells metabolized energy in a vastly different way compared to healthy cells.
By the 1930s, it was understood that cells make energy in two ways: aerobically (with oxygen) in the mitochondria, or anaerobically (without oxygen) in the cytoplasm, with the latter method producing the toxic byproduct lactic acid. Warburg discovered that cancer cells, in the presence of oxygen, tend to overproduce lactic acid. This phenomenon became known as the Warburg Effect.
Energy production in the mitochondria is vastly more efficient than anaerobic energy production. Having witnessed the difference, Warburg concluded that the likely cause of cancer was the switch of energy production from aerobic means to anaerobic fermentation, a more primitive way to make energy.
So would it be possible to reverse cancer by getting cells to revert back to aerobic energy production? Could you essentially “starve” cancer by eliminating energy production through anaerobic fermentation?
Despite his high regard among the scientific community, Warburg’s cancer theory was never proved before his death in 1970, and it was never truly accepted by conventional science. In fact, it virtually disappeared from cancer research for decades, until a recent resurgence pumped life back into Warburg’s research. And finally, he’s getting the recognition he's due.
How can you starve cancer?
We know that living organisms need a steady food supply in order to survive. Every animal, plant, bacteria and fungus operates on this basic principle. And at the heart of all these creatures are cells, the basic units of life.
Healthy cells feed off that mitochondrial energy we mentioned earlier. And cancer cells, according to Warburg, feed off energy created by fermenting sugar.
Early in his research, Warburg found that cells from a rat tumor grew by gorging themselves on glucose (sugar) and then breaking the sugar down anaerobically. When he moved on to testing additional tumors, including those from humans, Warburg witness the same result. Cancer cells are sugar fiends.
A New York Times article on Warburg’s research states that this sugar binging phenomenon can be seen in position emission tomography (PET) scans. According to the article, the Warburg effect occurs in up to 80% of cancers, showing on PET scans as places in the body where cells consume extra glucose.
That being said, isn’t it natural to think that limiting your sugar intake might deplete the cancer cells of their preferred nutrient source?
Even a drug for diabetes may be on its way to becoming re-classified as a potential cancer treatment. Metformin, prescribed to decrease serum glucose levels in diabetics, is showing promise for its anti-cancer effects.
Some integrative health professionals suggest tackling the metabolic defect by dramatically reducing non-fiber carbohydrates (sugars and refined grains) in the diet and replacing the empty carbs with plenty of vegetables (low net carbs), lean protein and healthy fats (mostly monounsaturated fats and balanced omega fatty acids).
There’s speculation that we may be on the right track of snuffing out cancer with a ketogenic diet, which eliminates most carbohydrates (especially the processed ones) and provides energy from high quality plant oils and lean protein. This should sound familiar to Atkins diet follower. It’s a similar concept, in which healthy cells can continue energy metabolism by breaking down fatty acid molecules (ketones), while cancer cells starve to death because there isn’t enough glucose (end product molecules when carbs are broken down) to sustain them.
While healthy cells maintain flexibility in using either glucose or ketones for fuel, cancer cells are much more selective and favor glucose.
Clinical trials using this sugar depletion approach continue around the world, as it’s still too early to confirm its legitimacy. But nutritional therapy is beginning to have a bigger role in cancer treatments, although it’s not expected to become a universal treatment for all cancer cases.
Still it’s sage advice to practice when you consider all the other diseases that have been linked to sugar consumption – heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.