How can diet really help cancer patients on their healing journey?

In the last few decades, we have seen unprecedented efforts from governments across the world in the fight against cancer. And with the help of monstrous budgets, mass-media campaigns and very courageous fundraising efforts, one cannot help but feel we are not winning. In fact, it almost feel as if the number of cases is growing faster all the time. So why are we so screwed, and more importantly, what can YOU do to maximise your chances to win this battle?

When it comes to diet we all tend to be very biased towards our sometime irrational opinion. And in the complementary therapy world, there is a fair bit of irrationality too – I say this while fully assuming my stance as a complementary therapist. So when the two come together, one can see truly deranged thinking (No, you can’t cure cancer with carrot juice. Sorry).

That being said, there are some very solid arguments that diet can have very healthy effects for cancer patients and significantly improve their prognosis. And no dietary approach for cancer is more promising at the moment than the so-called “ketogenic diet”. But what is it, why does it work and are the benefits real?

The Ketogenic diet has been around for a very long time. It’s been formally described in medical circles for about a hundred year, as a way to treat epileptic patients when everything else failed. But the reality is that it has been with us since we’ve been human, and perhaps even longer. Think of our hunter-gatherers ancestors, facing winter. Now think of what food could they get out of the snowy forests, when the ground is frozen, the fruits and leaves are gone… think of early human tribes who had a nomadic lifestyle, and managed to colonise the whole world, how would they quickly adapt to a new landscape where all the plants are different…

That’s right, our ancestors would have had to resort to fasting or hunting during those times. And this is the ketogenic diet in a nutshell.
Obviously, we have now studied this diet for decades, and we know how to apply this style of eating depending on your own bio-individuality and circumstances. Because everybody is different, and because improperly used, such a radical diet can have very adverse consequences.

But does the ketogenic diet “work” in the first place. Well, we have known for a long time that most cancer cells (but not all) tend to gobble glucose faster than any other cell. This is how we monitor cancer in PET-Scans. And there is a theory that is rapidly growing in popularity, in opposition to the current paradigm that cancer is a genetic disease. This new theory posits that cancer is a disease originating in how our cells use glucose. It is unclear at this stage if that would be the case for some, or most, or all cancer. And recent experiment have set to test this hypothesis.

For example, a pretty large number of animal studies have shown that a ketogenic diet can reduce tumor growth and improve survival rates. There was one 22-day study in mice that looked at the differences between the ketogenic diet and other diets (Weihua Zhou & al, 2007). That study found that a ketogenic diet reduced tumor growth by up to 65% and nearly doubled survival time in some cases.

There is another study in mice that tested the ketogenic diet with or without hyperbaric oxygen therapy and compared to the standard diet, the ketogenic diet increased mean survival time by 56 percent and that number increased to 78 percent when it was combined with hyperbaric oxygen (Angela Poff & al, 2013).

Ketogenic diet for cancer patients
a ketogenic diet is typically 80-90% calories from fat

There’s less research, in humans, but the little that does exist is promising and many trials are underway. One study (F. Rossi-Fanelli, 1991) monitored tumor growth in response to a high-carb versus a ketogenic diet in 27 patients with cancer of the digestive tract. Tumor growth increased by 32.2 percent in patients who received the high-carb diet, but actually decreased by 24.3 in the patients on ketogenic diet.

In another study (Kenneth Schwartz, 2015), three out of five patients on a ketogenic diet combined with radiation or chemo experienced complete remission. Interestingly, the other two participants found that the disease progressed after they stopped the ketogenic diet.

A very well conducted review of the literature by Bryan G. Allen in 2014 raised the fact that, not only a ketogenic diet directly starves cancer cell, but it also selectively upset the redox balance inside of cancer-cell, with the creation of free radical and eventually apoptosis in cancer cells. In plain English, the ketogenic diet “double-kill” cancer by starving it and poisoning it at the same time.

There are also numerous studies on the effect of ketones (the body’s alternative to glucose, produced when eating a ketogenic diet) in test tube cancer cell, which also converge towards a positive effect of the ketogenic diet for cancer patients. For instance this study and this one.

And on top of that, numerous case studies (anecdotal evidence, really, but evidence none the less) have shown very potent effect of the ketogenic diet when combined with standard therapy. See for instance here, here and here.

I want to be very clear, though, that I don’t believe claims that the ketogenic diet beats chemotherapy for all cancer treatment. There’s no research to support that. Besides, your body is more than capable to create its own glucose out of protein (could this be a reason for cancer patients being cachexic?) and there are evidences that some cancer cell can directly use some protein as fuel.

Cancer is a multi-factorial issue, and needs a holistic approach to it, and yes, this approach should include the treatments advised by your doctor. In any case, cancer vary from individual to individual, and treatment decisions should be made with the support of an oncologist and other doctors on the care team.

Acknowledgement: part of this article has been inspired from Chris Kresser’s blog.

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