Since ancient times, healers have known that food can be medicine – even if our conventional medical establishment has stubbornly resisted this fact.
But now mainstream medical researchers are finally getting around to exploring some of the ways that you can modify your food habits to prevent and treat specific illnesses.
Long-time readers of this newsletter know that the ketogenic diet is a powerful tool against cancer. The diet consists of eating foods that are very, very low in carbohydrates while emphasizing the consumption of healthy fats and moderating your protein intake.
Carbohydrates are metabolized into blood sugar (glucose), and that’s what normally fuels the body’s cells. But a keto diet starves the body for glucose and sends it into what’s known as “ketosis” or fat burning. The healthy cells can make the transition to metabolizing fat – while cancer cells can’t, and have nothing to eat. If you want to understand the science of why this works so well, see Issue #415 and Issue #416.
My enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat since I wrote those 2014 articles. It turns out some cancers can adapt to burning fat for fuel. But most cancer needs carbs to live – and it’s in trouble if it doesn’t get them.
Now there’s new proof the ketogenic diet should be in your toolbox for fighting cancer. . .
On the keto diet, the liver uses fatty acids to produce what are called ketone bodies. These circulate in the blood and become the fuel for cellular activity, instead of glucose. Healthy cells adapt, and malignant cells essentially begin to starve.
Lab tests investigating this effect have shown that it works. These studies have demonstrated that the keto diet can, in the words of researchers, “reduce tumor growth and improve survival.”1 These investigations have involved malignant glioma (brain and nervous system cancer), cancers of the digestive tract and prostate cancer.
And studies also confirm that fasting or following any low calorie diet, which can also cause the body to go into ketosis, makes cancer cells more likely to succumb to chemotherapy and eases some of the destructive side effects that chemotherapy can cause in normal cells.2
I’ve seen it suggested that the real reason chemotherapy works as well as it does is that it makes the patients sick and they stop eating. Their healthy cells can limp along on the body’s stored fat, but the cancer cells become weak and vulnerable – and more likely to be killed by the chemo drug. This is unproven and perhaps unprovable, but given the nutritional science it makes some sense.
The alternative theory of cancer is winning
Folks who know a lot about natural medicine and ideas about how our diets influence cancer, have reacted to the recent pro-keto studies with an “I told you so” attitude. We have a right to.
For example, it was back in 1885 – more than 130 years ago! – that a scientist called E. Freund first linked cancer to high blood sugar.3 And then in 1924, researchers in Germany picked up on the fact that “a diet rich in carbohydrates has a pronounced stimulating impact on tumor growth.”4 Germany was the world’s leader in medical science before the Nazis blew up the country.
As I’ve discussed many times before, the work of Otto Warburg, a German scientist, revealed that the mitochondria in cancer cells produce energy by fermentation rather than respiration, the way normal cells do. Fermentation is a primitive form of energy production that demands very high levels of blood sugar in order to manufacture puny amounts of energy. It also causes cancer cells to release large amounts of lactic acid and ammonia.
For his work in this area, Dr. Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931. And for the next forty years of his life, until he died in 1970, he tried to convince the medical establishment to further investigate his findings and use them to find better ways to fight cancer. But he was mostly frustrated in his efforts.
Why do cancer cells have a different metabolism?
As I noted earlier, many researchers are now finally looking into this area. As they’ve investigated cancer’s need for sugar, the researchers who are involved in studying cancer’s metabolism still haven’t been able to figure out exactly why cancer cells are so reliant on fermentation of sugar as their energy source. It’s still a puzzle.
Some scientists argue that the byproducts of the cancer cells’ fermentation process – such as the release of lactic acid – make changes in the body that help tumors invade organs. The high level of acidity may also help prevent immune cells from getting into tumors and killing off malignant cells.5 But nobody knows for sure.
Right now, according to researchers in Asia, 13 clinical trials are proceeding that are testing the effects of a ketogenic diet as a part of cancer therapy, and 62 trials are trying out low carbohydrate diets.6
Keto benefits keep multiplying
Along with helping to fight cancer, research into the keto diet has uncovered other remarkable effects.
A pair of lab studies at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and the University of California Davis shows that this sort of diet can keep memory going strong in old age and improve the chances of living longer.
The Buck Institute research on mice found that the keto diet’s influence on brain power is striking and powerful.7
“The fact that we had such an effect on memory and preservation of brain function is really exciting,” says researcher Eric Verdin. “The older mice on the ketogenic diet had a better memory than the younger mice. That’s really remarkable.”
The test at the U. of California not only discovered that the diet increases life expectancy but that it supports better physical fitness and strength, too.8
“The magnitude of the changes surprised me,” says researcher Jon Ramsey. “We’ve had the hypothesis that the shift in metabolism induced by a ketogenic diet would have beneficial effects on aging, but I was impressed by the changes we observed.”
And other benefits include. . .
Protection against glaucoma: A study at Northeast Ohio Medical University discovered that a keto diet may keep the cells in the eye’s retina from malfunctioning and preserve their connections to the brain by improving the health of mitochondria in the eye. The diet also improves the antioxidant defenses of the cells in the eye.9
Turns athletes into “spectacular fat burners:” Research at Ohio State shows that elite athletes on a keto diet burn twice as much fat for fuel as athletes who eat a large amount of carbohydrates.10 “This represents a real paradigm shift in sports nutrition, and I don’t use that term lightly,” says researcher Jeff Volek. “Maybe we’ve got it all backwards and we need to reexamine everything we’ve been telling athletes for the last 40 years about loading up on carbs. Clearly it’s not as straightforward as we used to think.”
Lowers the risk of heart and artery problems: Tests at Georgia State University demonstrate that one of the ketone bodies produced when you fast or hold calories down keeps blood vessels healthier.11 “This compound can delay vascular aging through endothelial cells, which line the interior surface of blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. It can prevent one type of cell aging called senescence, or cellular aging,” says researcher Ming-Hui Zou.
If you decide that you want to try a ketogenic diet, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional who has experience with it. If you are on medication, there may be potential interactions with your prescription. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, anyone taking medication for diabetes or people on blood pressure medicine shouldn’t follow the diet without getting expert advice.
And some experts advise keto dieters to “cycle” – drastically cutting carbohydrates for a limited period of time and then going through a cycle of eating more carbs.
- Freund E. Zur Diagnose des Carzinoms. Vorläufige Mittheilung. Wien Med Bl. 1885;8:267.
- Händel M, Tadenuma K. Über die Beziehung des Geschwulstwachstums zur Ernährung und zum Stoffwechsel. II. Mitteilung. Versuche zur Frage der Bedeutung der Kohlenhydrate für das Wachstum des Rattencarzinoms. Z Krebsforsch (J Cancer Res and Clin Oncol) 1924;21:288–293