by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Today, we understand cancer better than we used to. A generation ago, we associated cancers with the organs in which they originated—breast, prostate, lungs—and treated them accordingly. Now we’re beginning to understand cancer on the genetic level.
This is a bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that cancer is a lot more complicated than we ever imagined. For example, breast cancer isn’t one disease but many. We need to treat each patient as an individual, based on the unique genetic traits of her or his cancer.
The good news? We now have tools to help identify the unique traits of each tumor and apply personalized therapies based on those factors. This is especially true for patients affected by estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer. These cancers are sensitive to the hormone estrogen, which tells the tumors to grow.
Oncologists typically treat patients with ER+ cancer by reducing the influence that the hormone has on the tumor, and there are a number of drugs that can help this. But equally important are the proactive lifestyle steps these patients can take to complement conventional cancer therapies and reduce the impact estrogen has on their cancer.
By understanding how to control estrogen levels using diet, supplements, and other measures, we can reduce the cancer-promoting influence this hormone has on breast cancer cells. As an added bonus, these are habits that can benefit overall health and wellness, regardless of cancer risk.
Take Control of Your Diet
I like to think of food as medicine, and that’s doubly true when it comes to modulating estrogen. So while these dietary recommendations are customized for that purpose, they provide other benefits, such as reducing inflammation and improving metabolism.
At Amitabha Medical Clinic, where we specialize in integrative cancer treatment with a specific focus on breast cancer, diet is one of the pillars of our integrative care. I specifically like to integrate something as fundamental as diet with cutting-edge breakthrough treatments we’ve developed, such as therapeutic apheresis.
There are quite a few foods and beverages that have been shown to increase the risk of developing hormone-related breast cancer, and alcohol is near the top. Alcohol seems to impact both hormone metabolism and genetic signaling. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a drink now and then, just keep it moderate. But if you’re at risk for breast cancer or have breast cancer, it’s best to avoid alcohol altogether.
Fatty foods should also be consumed in moderation, or not at all. Eating a lot of fat tends to increase estrogen levels. Avoid fatty red meats and high-fat dairy products. Research published in 2008 studied 15,000 women and found that fatty foods dramatically increased their risk of developing breast cancer. In addition, higher cholesterol is also associated with increased breast cancer risk.
Like fat, sugar tends to increase estrogen. Sugar boosts levels of a protein called insulin-like growth factor, which can increase cancer growth and aggressiveness. Definitely avoid processed foods, which tend to be high in sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and other pro-inflammatory ingredients.
In addition, eating organic is an important consideration for any hormone-related cancer. Many factory farms give their animals hormones to increase speed and production. Any animal protein on your plate should be lean, organic, and grass-fed so you avoid toxic chemicals and hormonal additives.
On the other hand, there are foods you should increase in your diet, particularly cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. In addition to being nutrient dense, these veggies are rich in a nutrient called indole-3-carbinol (I3C), which converts into diindolylmethane (DIM), a critical compound that supports the body’s ability to metabolize estrogen.
Embrace healthy oils, such as olive oil, and eat foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseeds. In particular, flaxseeds are known to modulate estrogen.
I also recommend a diet high in phytoestrogens, which are estrogens that form naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. This may sound confusing, adding a type of estrogen rather than subtracting, but these foods have been shown to reduce breast cancer risk.
In addition, diets that are high in fiber lower estrogen levels. Fiber can reduce estrogen in the colon and also promotes friendly bacteria, as well as increased satiety.
A Note on Soy
Diet can be complicated, and nowhere is that more apparent than with soy, which has generated a lot of controversy. Some studies show that soy can reduce breast cancer risk, with whole soy foods providing a possible protective effect. However, concentrated soy extracts seem to increase cancer cell proliferation.
This is one situation where it’s a good idea to hedge your bets. Favor fermented soy varieties, such as tempeh and miso, and stay away from soy protein isolates and soy isoflavones.
Hormones can be sneaky. Estrogen is made in the ovaries during a woman’s reproductive years, but it’s also made in fat cells. For women, after menopause, fat is the primary source of estrogen.
As a result, maintaining a healthy weight is a key factor in controlling estrogen production. The dietary recommendations above will be quite helpful, but don’t forget to exercise. It really doesn’t take much activity; a brisk 30-minute daily walk can be sufficient for most people. I also recommend meditative practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong, which combine fitness with mindful meditation. The important thing is to stay active.
Estrogen-like compounds, which mimic the actions of real estrogen in the body, can come from numerous chemical sources, from food packaging to plastic water bottles and personal care products. Some of the chemicals in these products qualify as estrogen mimics that can bind to and activate estrogen receptors. These chemicals tend to be fat-soluble, so once they’re in the body they can stay there for a long time.
There’s no easy answer here; obviously, these products are ubiquitous. The best solution is to be a passionate label reader. For a list of chemicals to look out for, visit the Environmental Working Group‘s website.
Another issue is the accumulation of heavy metals in the body over time. Copper, cobalt, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead have all been shown to stimulate estrogen receptors. Again, awareness is key to avoiding these toxins in your environment and your diet. Lead is often found in air pollution, paint, and ceramic glazes. Some brands of rice are high in arsenic, which can also be found in seafood. Mercury tends to concentrate in large fish, such as tuna, which are higher up the food chain.
Fight Back with Supplements
One of the best ways to reduce your heavy metal body burden is with modified citrus pectin (MCP). MCP is made from the pith of citrus fruits and modified to a specific molecular weight and structure for absorption and bioactivity. A number of human studies have shown that MCP can safely remove heavy metals from the body, without pulling out essential minerals—an unusual feature for chelation therapies. In fact, MCP can be a great alternative to chelation therapy, which can have serious side effects.
I also recommend alpha lipoic acid, N-acetyl cysteine, garlic, and cilantro, which support the body’s ability to detoxify heavy metals and environmental toxins that wreak havoc on hormone health.
Another important nutrient to make sure you get enough of is vitamin D3. This vitamin can modulate genes associated with cell growth and metabolism. The best way to boost vitamin D3 is to get moderate sun exposure, but that’s not always possible, so supplement when necessary. Your doctor can easily test your vitamin D levels.
All of these supplements are important, but my highest recommendation for hormone-sensitive breast cancer is a scientifically researched botanical breast formula I developed. It has eight ingredients, including DIM (diindolylmethane), the estrogen-modulating compound found in cruciferous vegetables, and botanically grown medicinal mushrooms, as well as quercetin, a bioavailable form of curcumin called BCM95, along with other botanical extracts. Multiple studies demonstrate that this formula can help support breast cell wellness.
For many people, one of the most frightening statements to hear is, “You have cancer.” Shock, fear and apprehension are natural reactions, but it’s important not to lose hope. Rather, we can use these feelings to our advantage as fuel for committing to a vigorous health and treatment strategy that fights the cancer from multiple angles. Patients with ER+ breast cancer have many resources they can rely on to win this battle. I encourage them to take advantage of every one.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.