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Minimising Inflammation in Cancer with Diet

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Plant-based foods and a well-designed ketogenic diet can help reduce inflammation in the body. You may wonder if this is important for someone with cancer? It certainly is – for many years now, research has shown that chronic inflammation is a driving force of cancer’s growth and promotes all stages of malignant development.

Before going further, it is important to distinguish chronic inflammation from the normal inflammatory response to a short-term illness or injury that assists healing and which ultimately resolves. Inflammation that is chronic (unresolved) can occur in response to many things in our daily living – such as chemical exposure, poor diet or smoking. It may be surprising to some that simply being over-weight or obese will also contribute to a state of ‘smouldering’, low-grade chronic inflammation, as fat tissue produces higher levels of inflammatory molecules. [1] [2] This smouldering inflammation, which is seen in many states of poor health can promote and increase the risk of many different cancers, including liver, pancreatic, colon, breast and other malignancies.[3]

We can see that inflammation contributes to the development of cancer by the fact that many cancers arise from sites of chronic irritation and inflammation. For example, conditions with the suffix “-itis” (meaning inflammation), such as pancreatitis, hepatitis, colitis, esophagitis, and bronchitis, predispose to the development of cancers in these tissues.[4] [5]

In chronic inflammation, there is a sustained release of inflammatory molecules known as cytokines and chemokines from immune cells. These molecules can cause changes in body tissues, resulting in high levels of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules which can damage cells and cause mutations to the DNA. When cells with DNA errors try to replicate, the errors are copied to the new cells and become a foundation of cancer development and growth.[6]

Once a tumour has formed, processes in the tissue within and around the tumour (tumour microenvironment) are also orchestrated by interactions between inflammatory cells. Messages triggered by inflammatory molecules can increase growth rates of tumour cells, make the blood vessels more permeable and promote the formation of new blood vessels that supply blood to tumours. [7] This pro-tumour environment supports survival of the cells within it by tumour-promoting signals and blocking anti-tumour immune activity. [8]

Within the tumour microenvironment, cancer cells are often in competition with their healthy neighbouring cells. The cells that are less fit are eliminated by the more fit adjacent cells. It is thought that mutations in cancer cells give them a greater ability to kill neighbouring healthy cells. Their better adaptability to the inflammatory conditions allows tumours to expand. This inflammation, as well as other factors that further contribute to inflammation, such as high-sugar diets and sedentary lifestyle, impede the body’s natural defences, which has a disadvantageous influence on normal cells in competition with the tumour.[9]

Inflammatory cytokines also help tumour cells move around and invade nearby tissue, with the net effect that inflammation helps tumour cells metastasize. [10] High levels of cytokines in the circulation have been associated with significantly poorer outcomes, especially those related to tumour growth, chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.[11] [12]

So what can we do?

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help to manage inflammation, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet is one. Many plant foods that are high in phytochemicals are known to have anti-inflammatory activity. Phytochemicals, when eaten on a daily basis, not only help flush away inflammation, but can also assist in maintaining a healthy immune response, regulate blood sugar levels, and assist in detoxification. Ketone bodies, which are produced in the liver under conditions of low glucose and insulin such as when fasting or on a ketogenic diet, have also been shown to reduce inflammation.

Nutritious sets out a plant-based ketogenic diet that introduces you a wide variety of foods selected for their anti-cancer and health-promoting effects. This diet is packed full of:

  • phytochemicals, like carotenoids and anthocyanins, which are found in high quantities in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables.

  • foods that are unprocessed and high in fibre, that give the benefit of supporting good gut bacteria

  • vitamins like A, C, and E, which also support immune function as well acting as antioxidants

  • anti-inflammatory spices including turmeric, ginger, rosemary and thyme

  • medium chain triglycerides which support the production of ketones in the liver

This approach also avoids food that increase inflammation: sugars, artificial trans fats, vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates, soft-drinks and juices (including “diet” drinks), alcohol, and processed and red meats. Following this type of diet can help reduce your inflammatory load and help you get the best results from your treatment.

References [1] Amin MN, Hussain MS, Sarwar MS, Rahman Moghal MM, Das A, Hossain MZ, Chowdhury JA, Millat MS, Islam MS. How the association between obesity and inflammation may lead to insulin resistance and cancer. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2019 Mar-Apr;13(2):1213-1224. doi: 10.1016/j.dsx.2019.01.041. Epub 2019 Jan 29. PMID: 31336467. [2] Kolb, R., Sutterwala, F. S., & Zhang, W. (2016). Obesity and cancer: bridges the two. Current opinion in pharmacology, 29, 77–89. [3] Fishbein, A., Hammock, B. D., Serhan, C. N., & Panigrahy, D. (2020). Carcinogenesis: Failure of resolution of inflammation?. Pharmacology & therapeutics, 107670. Advance online publication. [4] Wiebe N, Stenvinkel P, Tonelli M. Associations of Chronic Inflammation, Insulin Resistance, and Severe Obesity With Mortality, Myocardial Infarction, Cancer, and Chronic Pulmonary Disease. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Aug 2;2(8):e1910456. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.10456. PMID: 31469399; PMCID: PMC6724168. [5] Tuomisto, A. E., Mäkinen, M. J., & Väyrynen, J. P. (2019). Systemic inflammation in colorectal cancer: Underlying factors, effects, and prognostic significance. World journal of gastroenterology, 25(31), 4383–4404. [6] Kidane, D., Chae, W. J., Czochor, J., Eckert, K. A., Glazer, P. M., Bothwell, A. L., & Sweasy, J. B. (2014). Interplay between DNA repair and inflammation, and the link to cancer. Critical reviews in biochemistry and molecular biology, 49(2), 116–139. [7] Rani A, Dasgupta P, Murphy JJ. Prostate Cancer: The Role of Inflammation and Chemokines. Am J Pathol. 2019 Nov;189(11):2119-2137. doi: 10.1016/j.ajpath.2019.07.007. Epub 2019 Aug 14. PMID: 31421072. [8] Coussens, L., Werb, Z. Inflammation and cancer. Nature 420, 860–867 (2002). [9] Vishwakarma M, Piddini E. Outcompeting cancer. Nat Rev Cancer. 2020 Mar;20(3):187-198. doi: 10.1038/s41568-019-0231-8. Epub 2020 Jan 13. Review. Erratum in: Nat Rev Cancer. 2020 Apr 14;:. PubMed [citation] PMID: 31932757 [10] Greten, F. R., & Grivennikov, S. I. (2019). Inflammation and Cancer: Triggers, Mechanisms, and Consequences. Immunity, 51(1), 27–41. [11] Korniluk, A., Koper, O., Kemona, H., & Dymicka-Piekarska, V. (2017). From inflammation to cancer. Irish journal of medical science, 186(1), 57–62. [12] Yao D, Dong M, Dai C, Wu S. Inflammation and Inflammatory Cytokine Contribute to the Initiation and Development of Ulcerative Colitis and Its Associated Cancer. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2019 Sep 18;25(10):1595-1602. doi: 10.1093/ibd/izz149. PMID: 31287863.

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