[Special Guest Post by Christine Hanley]
Note: this is a 3-part post by Christine of Póg Mo Thóin Slán Leat. You may want to bookmark it, because it is one of the best explanations I've ever seen as to why eating healthy can reduce your cancer risk. It's very informative and motivating, not to mention amusing, which is hard to pull of when writing about cancer. Thanks Christine!--Crabby]
What is Cancer?
One way to understand Cancer is to think of your body as a nice, posh, invite-only wine and cheese ‘do at your house. When the party (your body) is functioning properly, the number and quality of party attendees (cells) is regulated. If someone turns out to be an inappropriate guest (a cell damaged beyond repair), you ask them to leave and everything is back to normal (this is your body’s natural process of cell death, aka apoptosis).
However, let’s say something has caused you to be incapacitated for some reason (your body’s natural cell death system is not functioning properly). A real jerk shows up to your party and starts off by chugging a bottle of wine, messing with the stereo and annoying your guests, but you can’t get out there to get rid of him. Then he gets on the phone and starts inviting all his jerky friends over (the bad cell, having not gone through natural cell death, begins to replicate). The jerks start taking over for real now, since all of them are phoning their jerky friends over (all the cells are replicating uncontrollably) and they’re starting to get into areas that the party was not even supposed to be in, crowding out the nice guests you invited (regular, healthy neighbouring cells) and oh look, now there’s a disgustingly raunchy threesome with all sorts of questionably legal acts happening in your marriage bed. Like, I'm talking, one of the participants is a goat. Cancer is nasty business folks, and it’s got no respect for anyone or anything.
Now, hopefully by this stage, someone will have called the cops (you’ll have noticed something has gone wrong and gotten yourself to the doctor). Because, if this situation goes completely unchecked, some of these drunkards will get into their cars and start driving down the roads and invading other parties in town (new parts of your body) and the whole thing will start there as well. This is metastasis, where pieces of the Cancer break off and go to completely new places and grows new tumors.
So in short, Cancer is caused by your cell security system (cell death) breaking down and causing damaged cells to replicate uncontrollably, invading other tissues and possibly metastising via the blood and lymph systems into new parts of the body.
Since Cancer is basically a bunch of bad cells dividing uncontrollably without anything to tell them to take a hike, we can infer that Cancer is therefore best avoided by preventing the loss of your cell security system. This cell security system is hard coded into your genetic code, aka your DNA. All Cancers are caused by DNA anomalies: mutations.
Mutations can be caused by any number of things; you can be born with them (Genetics), or you can acquire them, through plain old DNA replication errors, (when your cells divide normally, each cell gets a new copy of DNA made especially for it, and sometimes it’s copied wrong like a badly executed Xerox) or through something physically interfering with the DNA molecule. This last cause, physical interference, is where diet comes in to play. I’ll talk about two major types of physical interference: intercalation and oxidization.
Something to remember, however, is that you have a LOT of security. In fact, your DNA’s security systems definitely outstrip that of even a post 9/11 airport. So you need a LOT to go wrong before you get Cancer. Clearly, though, it does happen.
Certain types of nefarious molecules can sort of slide into your DNA like an issue of Penthouse into a Harvard Library bookshelf. High falutin’ scientists call this “intercalation”. Basically, it means that your DNA is like a big huge stack of plates. Every plate is the exact same size and type so there’s no problem stacking them so high and it’s quite stable. Intercalation is like sliding a mismatched plate into the middle of the DNA molecule. This throws off the whole stack, and can screw up all loads of things. If it screws up a part of your DNA responsible for the cell security system, you can get a runaway cell that causes Cancer.
Molecules that cause intercalation are, by and large, “flat” molecules. They’re often kind of disc shaped, usually. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are one of these: you can tell by the name: “cyclic”. Like a circle. Disc shaped. They are formed when fat is burned over high heat – so when you barbeque a steak. Another is Acrylamide, which is formed when you brown starchy foods – like when you toast a slice of bread or fry a potato.
However, the body does do a wonderful job of policing the molecules that get into it: people have a family of enzymes called Cytochrome P450s that alter alien molecules so that they don’t fit into DNA, and making them water soluble so that your body flushes them out with the rest of your wee. This is why it’s ok to eat toast and steak in moderation: because as long as you don’t give your body a deluge of these toxic compounds, your body can handle them just fine, it’s got built in defences against most of what you can throw at it as long as you’re generally treating it right.
The second process I’ll talk about which alters your DNA and therefore can cause Cancer is called oxidization. This is a process in which your DNA gets damaged, (oxidation is the same process that's rusting your car right now). Again, if the cell security system takes a hit… I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out by now what that means.
When you digest food, you are essentially breaking chemical bonds. Sometimes the breaking of a chemical bond creates something called a Free Radical, which is missing an electron, which will sometimes search out a stable molecule from which to steal an electron. This is considered to be a major factor in DNA damage, which not only causes Cancer, but aging in general as well.
Here is where that all powerful anti-oxidant comes in: they neutralize the Free Radicals before they can damage your DNA. Anti-oxidants are bodyguards for your DNA. To prevent Cancer, you want to make sure you have enough anti-oxidants to neutralize any Free Radicals that might occur. There is NO such thing as too many anti-oxidants.
The Cancer Most Linked to Diet
By and large, the number one Cancer that you can prevent through diet is Colorectal Cancer. It is the third most common Cancer in both men and women in the US, so it’s certainly worth pausing to think about. People don’t like to talk about it though, since it’s fundamentally Ass Cancer.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a large risk factor for the development of Colorectal Cancer is a diet high in fat and low in fibre – which is essentially the Western diet. Researchers figured this out when they found that people from Swaziland have nearly NO Colon Cancer, which they thought might be due to the fact that the Swazilanders eat hugely fibrous Betel Nuts which make them take about 3 or 4 dumps a day. Freakin’ impressive, man. (They then did a lot of fun studies on Intestinal Transit Times involving timing how long coloured pellets took to “emerge”. Interestingly, English boarding schools were the most anal retentive. I totally wish I had a source for that one besides my University Chemistry professor.)
Anyway, since then there have been a lot of studies corroborating the fibre/colon Cancer protection link. There are a number of theories as to why this occurs, the two most popular being that fibre increases fecal bulk, thus diluting Cancer causing compounds in the intestines; as well as decreasing the amount of time the crap (literally) hangs around in your colon, thus limiting your intestines' exposure to the toxins within.
Take Home Messages
- Your body is well equipped to deal with all sorts of intruders, as long as you don’t launch a full on dietary blitzkrieg on it. Eat foods with known carcinogens (such as BBQed meats) in moderation and your body will dispatch them quite efficiently.
- Make sure you eat plenty of anti-oxidant containing foods (by and large these are your fruits and veggies) to provide your DNA with plenty of protection from the wear and tear of daily life.
- Lastly, eat whole foods high in fibre: they’re your best defence against Colorectal Cancer, by getting the toxins in your poo out of your body ASAP.
Christine Hanley isn't a dietician or a doctor or anyone with any fancy shmancy right to tell you what to eat, but she did study Biology for four years at McGill University and ended up with a BSc. Which has proved to be totally useless so far, but hey, she's not bitter. She usually blogs at Póg Mo Thóin Slán Leat.