Did you know there’s a common fruit grown all across the country that can help reduce your risk of developing cancer?
If you grow your own produce in a backyard garden, this may even be in it.
This refreshing fruit, which is 96% water, shows up at farmer’s markets and in grocery stores everywhere, but you won’t find it next to the berries, oranges or apples…
It suffers from the same confusion as tomatoes: the cucumber is technically a fruit, but most people consider it a vegetable and group it in with other veggies.
No matter how you choose to classify them, cucumbers are packed with antioxidants and polyphenols that reduce inflammation, scavenge free radicals and reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Read this and you won’t think of cucumbers as a “common” vegetable anymore. . .
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Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) belong to the same gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) as melons and squash. They grow on creeping vines in the same way and are used primarily as vegetables.
Cucumbers are available in dozens of varieties (with colorful names like Dasher, Conquistador, Slicemaster, Victory and Comet), but generally there are two types: slicing and pickling.
Slicing cucumbers are the ones that usually pop up in produce departments and farmers’ markets and are eaten fresh (and used to soothe puffy eyes). They have a thicker skin and are larger than the pickling variety.
Regardless of what you do with your cucumbers, their anti-cancer benefits come from several kinds of polyphenols: cucurbitacins, kaempferol, quercetin and apigenin.
Compounds that shut down cancer cells
Cucurbitacins are chemicals found throughout the plant kingdom that protect organisms from harmful toxins and microbes. They’re also what make cucumber skins slightly bitter. You could say they’re the plant’s immune system.
People have used the roots of plants from the Cucurbitaceae family in folk remedies for thousands of years for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.1
In more recent years, numerous groups of researchers have been digging into specific anti-cancer properties of both natural and semi-synthetic cucurbitacin chemicals (e.g., cucurbitacin A, cucurbitacin B, etc.). The results so far have been fascinating.
In a 2007 study published in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology, researchers found a 1:1 ratio of cucurbitacin B and E can inhibit growth in human breast cancer cell lines by reducing the key protein complex the cancer cells need.2
The treated cells also showed reduced cell signaling molecules, meaning the cancer cells couldn’t communicate with each other in order to spread.
This combination of reduced proteins and communication-induced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the breast cancer cells.
Another study, this one published in Cancer Research in 2009, discovered that cucurbitacin B shrinks pancreatic tumors without any noticeable toxicity to healthy cells, and stops pancreatic cancer cells from spreading, in both lab cultures and live animals.
What was interesting about this study is that the researchers looked at seven different pancreatic cell lines and found that cucurbitacin B selectively disrupted the JAK/STAT signaling pathways in every one of them.
JAK/STAT pathways are the primary mechanism controlling cell growth, proliferation and apoptosis. So when cucurbitacin B is introduced into cancer cells, it stops all communication and signals the cells to die.
I’m not sure if this means eating cucumbers will help a pancreatic cancer patient. More study is needed. But meanwhile it might be worth a try.
Cucurbitacins have also been shown to disrupt the MAPK cell pathway, which plays a key role in cancer cell proliferation and survival.4
Other research is testing the use of cucurbitacins in treating leukemia, lymphoma, prostate, lung, uterine liver, skin and colon cancer. I’m hopeful we’re going to see good results.
But don’t wait to get sick to bring cucurbitacins into your life. Wash and eat whole cucumbers to super-charge your cells with this cancer-fighting chemical. Be sure to eat the peels and seeds, as they have the highest concentration of cucurbitacins.
Cucumbers are packed with more than just cucurbitacins. They’re also rich in the flavonoids quercetin, kaempferol and apigenin. As discussed in previous issues, these substances are well known for their antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties. Quercetin, for example, is also found in apples and onions and is available in supplements.
Kaempferol has been shown to reduce oxidative stress in cells, trigger apoptosis in unhealthy cells and inhibit cancer cell growth in a variety of different cancer cell lines.
It can target and turn off the signaling path of cancer cells while simultaneously boosting the strength of normal, healthy cells in response to oxidative stress. This helps to prevent the cells from falling prey to cancer in the first place.
As researchers explained in the 2014 issue of Food Chemistry, “Kaempferol’s value in its ability to distinguish between healthy and malignant cells cannot be overstated. Modern chemotherapy treatments pose serious health risks, a problem kaempferol seems to have resolved.” 5
Sounds like something you’d like to have in your corner, doesn’t it?
This antioxidative flavonoid is excellent at scavenging free-radicals. It’s also a chemopreventer that induces apoptosis in tumor cells.
In a 2011 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found quercetin can block the growth of several kinds of human cancer cells (including colon, lung and brain) at varying stages of the cell cycle.
And much like kaempferol, it does so without harm to healthy cells.6
Another common flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, apigenin has also been shown to slow the growth of ovarian tumors.7
Research suggests a diet high in flavonoids, including apigenin, can help reduce breast, skin and digestive tract cancers, as well as blood malignancies.
More research is being done, but there is a strong potential that apigenins will be developed as a chemopreventive (i.e. anti-cancer) agent.8
These aren’t the only chemopreventive agents found in cucumbers, but the list is too vast to cover here.
Rest assured, organic cucumbers are an excellent choice for cancer-preventive nutrition.
Yes — it’s important to choose
organic cucumbers, every time
Cucumbers are on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list—the top 12 most pesticide-sprayed foods, when grown conventionally.9
In fact, one study shows that conventionally-grown cucumbers typically contain seven different pesticides, including propoxur, carbofuran and atrazine.10 The effects of consuming these poisons can range from nausea, blurred vision and vomiting to full-on endocrine disruption.
To be sure, few people will eat enough to ever see these symptoms. They’ll just poison themselves to death slowly, without knowing it.
Many cucumbers are waxed to protect the skins during transport. By law, organic cucumbers can only be coated with a non-synthetic wax that contains no chemical contaminants, whereas conventionally grown cucumbers may be covered with a petroleum-based wax.
Because the skin is rich in nutrients, you’re better off buying organic or from the farmer’s market so you can enjoy the whole cucumber, minus the cancer-causing chemicals.
Boost your health two ways, with one vegetable
So far I’ve focused on eating fresh, raw slicing cucumbers, but I don’t want you to discount pickling cucumbers.
Fermented pickles—made with a slow build-up of lactic acid—are great prebiotic food, meaning a food that promotes healthy bacteria in your gut. You can make fermented pickles at home in your slow cooker, or find them in specialty shops and online.
Unfortunately, regular dill and sweet pickles don’t offer the microbiome-boosting benefits of “old-fashioned” pickles because they’re pickled quickly with vinegar and then pasteurized, which destroys any beneficial bacteria that may have grown in the process.
Having a healthy microbiome not only keeps you feeling better physically and emotionally, but can help to prevent colon cancer (see Issue #539 for more information about how your gut bacteria prevent cancer).
By eating organic cucumbers you’re adding a lot of beneficial chemicals to your cells that can prevent cancer, soothe inflammation and destroy free radicals.
If regular cucumbers are too bitter for you, try English cucumbers, also known as hot house or seedless cucumbers. These have many of the benefits, without the seeds.