As someone whose Mauritian island heritage harks back to the sugar cane industry, you would think that sugar would hold a soft spot for me. Actually it does. Or it did until I learnt how closely aligned it was to cancer.
In earlier posts (Oxygen and Cancer, So What is Cancer?) I touched on the fact that cancer cells create their own exclusive universe within the body, thriving, unlike other cells, in an anaerobic or low oxygen environment and metabolizing glucose, or sugar, for growth. To better understand this phenomenon though and why we need to be super attentive to our sugar intake, we need to delve a little deeper into the field of cellular biology.
Glycosis, a term of Greek origin literally meaning “the breakdown of something sweet” (//hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Biology/glycolysis.html), is the first step in a cell’s conversion of glucose to energy. It is a process that doesn’t require oxygen and produces minimal energy – only 2 molecules. Through its byproduct, pyruvate, energy production is maximised though by the cell’s mitochondria, creating 36 molecules. This process does require oxygen and is an innate process of healthy cells. In the case of cancer cells, however, it’s been proven based on the findings of the Nobel laureate, Otto Warburg, in 1920 that glycosis, in most cases, is the preferred energy source for cancer cells even when oxygen is available and despite its minimal energy output. PET scans use this very premise to detect the presence of cancer through individuals being given a radioactive sugar solution prior to testing. If cancer exists, the cells in question will automatically gravitate to the glucose solution to consume the sugar provided, which will show up on the images taken. Studies of the cancer cell “diet” have also shown an uptake of sugar 10-12 times higher than the rate of healthy cells (//beatcancer.org/blog-posts/5-reasons-cancer-and-sugar-are-best-friends/). Whilst Warburg theorised that it was the glycosis factor that grew cancers in the body, research today suggests that this abnormal metabolism is the result, not the driver of cellular mutation, the DNA re-wiring that is often the precursor to serious disease (//en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warburg_effect).
Where then does that leave us who are determined to protect ourselves, as much as possible, from cancer? The bottom line is, the more sugar we consume, the more existing cancer cells are fed. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Thank goodness then that I don’t have cancer.” Nice in theory, but remember, we produce cancerous cells every day; cells that through a combination of diet, environment and lifestyle don’t quite measure up and have the potential to mutate into something more sinister. The control mechanism in this process which I outlined in a previous post (Waking Up to the Immune System) is the immune system whose job it is to detect and destroy anything foreign in the body. Sugar, however, doesn’t help. A pivotal 1973 clinical study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition proved that sugar impairs the function of neutrophils, the major player in the body’s white cell army, up to 5 hours after ingestion of merely 100 grams of simple sugars (//www.progressivehealth.com/does-eating-sugar-increase-your-risk-of-influenza.htm). These are the types of sugars that are exploited in such processed foods as cakes, biscuits, ready-to-eat cereals and sweets or in carbonated drinks and juices. Since they only provide energy through the body’s metabolizing of the glucose they contain, they are known as “empty calories,” the sort that adds to the waistline if unused as energy and provides ample fuel for cancer cells. Furthermore, their impact on raising blood insulin levels adds another layer of concern, since insulin is a growth factor that promotes rapid cell division (//www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2016/6/The-Insulin-Cancer-Connection/Page-01). Sugar consumption is also associated with the creation of an inflammatory response in the body, which if persistent and elevated in the long-term is linked to the development of chronic disease. In other words, “If genetic damage is the match that lights the fire, inflammation may provide the fuel that feeds the flames” (//scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2013/02/01/feeling-the-heat-the-link-between-inflammation-and-cancer/).
Consequently, a diet consistently fuelled by sugar in the form of the simple and refined sort will trigger weight gain, inflammation, elevated insulin levels and suppress the immune system; all factors that can potentially contribute to the development of cancer or exacerbate an existing condition.
When I underwent chemo, fasting was advised beforehand. After the several hour long procedure, I was given my first meal of the day by the hospital – a piece of fruit, white bread, butter and a fruit juice. I knew that this wasn’t altogether healthy but what I didn’t know then was how this was simply giving my cancer more fuel. Post-cancer, I now understand the importance of diet, especially in terms of the role of sugar in helping to manifest disease. Consequently, even though I too am partial to sugar, I choose to err on the path of caution, consuming a diet strong in vegetables, low glycemic food and fruit options and restriction of the processed foods that harbour simple and refined sugars. Better to have choice than an inevitable health sentence…
Sugar and Cancer
Sugar and The Immune System