Scientists and medical professionals have known for quite some time that breast and other cancers occur as a result of uncontrolled cell proliferation. But exactly what causes this out-of-control growth still remains a bit of a mystery that is being pieced together, study by study. What we do know is that many carcinogens – cancer causing agents- do their dirty work by damaging our DNA. The greater our exposure to carcinogens, the greater the potential for DNA damage that can lead to cancer.

When our DNA becomes damaged, our genes begin to mutate, or change form.  For example, when a gene that helps control cell division is damaged, the cell can no longer control the process effectively. When genes that are designed to protect us from cancer (eg, the p53 or “tumor suppressor” gene) are silenced by carcinogens, we will stop benefitting from their protection. When genes that regulate the normal life cycle of a cell malfunction, the normal process of cell death or apoptosis can be circumvented. And so on.

So it would be fair to say that one of our body’s top priorities is to protect its cells, and our cells’ top priorities are protection of their DNA. Our cells accomplish this aim by maintaining a good stockpile of repair enzymes to reverse damage, and by having an ample supply of antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress. To satisfy these needs, cells need the right nutrients at the right time. The cell membrane has the job of making sure that these nutrients gain entry into the cell as required and that toxins are eliminated as necessary.

You may like to think of nutrition like you  think about a bank account. A sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep, and poor eating habits are the withdrawals that rob nutritional reserves.  Deposits come from eating whole, nutrient dense foods that replenish reserves. The interest is the strength and vitality that comes from smart investing.

How do we know?

There are literally thousands of studies that have uncovered a clear and distinct relationship between vital nutrients and cancer risk.  One influential study in 1990 provides a powerful example.  A potent carcinogen called DMBA was given to a group of female rats.  Then, the rats were given either none, one of four, two of four, three of four, or all of the four nutrients.  The nutrients used were the minerals selenium and magnesium, and the vitamins C and A.  The results were truly notable. When no nutrients were administered, all of the rats developed breast cancer. When one of the nutrients was given, between 46.4% and 57.1% of the rats developed tumors, depending on the nutrient. When two of the nutrients were given in combination, the tumor incidences were further lowered to 25.9% to 34.6%, depending on the combination.

Delivery of nutrients in groups of threes resulted in still further reduction of tumor incidences – 16%  to 23.1%.  And when the four nutrients were all given together, tumor incidence dropped to 12%. When all four modulators were given concurrently the tumor incidence was only 12%.  When you stop to remember that our DNA is 99% identical to that of rats, the message is abundantly clear:   nutrition is power!

Dr. Bruce Ames and nutritional deficiencies

Dr. Bruce Ames is a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of California, and one of the most frequently cited scientists in the world with over 540 publications and dozens of awards to his name. Dr. Ames has been working on a theory connecting micronutrient intake, cancer risk reduction, and other degenerative diseases of aging.   Dubbed “triage theory,” Ames suggests that as human beings evolved, reproductive needs took priority over longevity;  therefore, in times of scarcity, nature selected for a “rebalancing of metabolism” (Ames, 2010) to insure short term survival for reproduction at the expense of longer term health.

Due to the heavy body load placed on women during reproduction and lactation and the inevitable loss of nutrients while their system develops the developing infant, it’s even more important for women to be aware of their nutrient intake, nutritional sufficiency and its effect on their overall health.  The theory further proposes that optimizing intake of the approximately 40 essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids) will lead to a reduction in chronic, degenerative diseases including cancer. In subsequent posts we’ll look at various nutrients in detail to see exactly how each one contributes to the beautiful physiological tapestry that is nutritional health and well being.