By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
No matter what your political persuasion is, the recent news about Elizabeth Edwards was heartbreaking. Stage four breast cancer – cancer that has spread to the lungs, liver or bones – is an advanced and incurable form of the disease and her strength and courage are indeed admirable.
Yet Elizabeth Edwards story isn’t uncommon. Every three minutes a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer. Over a lifetime, one in eight women will develop the disease, making breast cancer the second leading cause of death for women. And, while postmenopausal women have a greater chance of developing breast cancer, younger women have a more aggressive form of the disease, so this is definitely an issue all women need to pay attention to. But, in an age when sporting a pink ribbon is a well-known sign of breast cancer awareness, many of us are clueless when it comes to the many things we can do to prevent becoming one of the statistics.
According to a new study by scientists at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Villejuif, France, postmenopausal women who eat healthy amounts of plant foods rich in estrogen-like compounds called lignans can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer by 17 percent.
During their study, the researchers evaluated the relationship between the amount of four types of plant lignans in the diet and breast cancer risk in 58,049 postmenopausal French women. Those with the highest total amount of lignans in the diet had a significantly lower risk of developing breast cancer compared with women having the lowest dietary lignan levels.
Flaxseeds are one of the best sources of plant lignans because they help balance hormones by preventing excess estrogen from being reabsorbed into the body through the digestive tract – and women with higher estrogen levels are at increased risk for breast cancer. An added bonus – flaxseeds also contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts also contain a respectable amount of lignans, although not nearly the amount you’d get by eating two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds every day. But, since you’re dinner plate probably features these veggies on a regular basis, it’s easy to boost the amount you eat. Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, rye, soybeans, beans and some berries can also help you increase your lignan intake. Not only are these foods packed with lignans, they also offer antioxidants and other immune-enhancing phytonutrients that have a strong protective effect on breast tissue.
The Toxic Table
Given the overwhelming number of environmental carcinogens, a woman who doesn’t care what she eats is in a very dangerous position right now compared to even 30 years ago. Well-done meats top the list of foods that may increase breast cancer risk. When cooked at high temperatures (think grilling) for long periods of time, the fat in meat forms carcinogens that have been shown to affect breast tissue.
Dairy products containing growth hormones can create hormonal imbalances that can also lead to breast cancer. Recombinantly-Derived Growth Hormone (rBGH) is a genetically engineered hormone designed to increase milk production. This modified milk contains high levels of another hormone – insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) – that causes cells to divide and reproduce. Although a number of studies have found that excess IGF-1 can cause breast and prostate cancer, the FDA fast-tracked the approval of rBGH in 1993 – so it’s likely that the gallon of conventional milk in your grocery store contains this unnecessary and potentially dangerous hormone. To protect yourself, opt for organic dairy products or ones which state that they are rBGH-free.
Pesticide residue on conventionally-grown produce can also up your risk. Despite overwhelming evidence that these chemicals pose a threat to human health, conventional farmers continue to rely on pesticides. As a result, three-quarters of the produce on supermarket shelves contain chemical residue, including some, like DDT and dieldrin, which were outlawed for use on American crops in the 1960s after scientists found that long-term exposure could cause cancer, birth defects and nerve damage in humans. But because these pesticides can persist in the environment for decades, the FDA and EPA are still finding high levels in both pesticides in some U.S. crops like spinach and cucumbers. And, no matter how carefully you clean your produce, chemicals like dieldrin can’t be washed off.
Choosing organic fruits and veggies eliminates the threat pesticides pose to your health and pack a more nutritious punch than their conventional counterparts. In a review of 41 studies comparing the nutritional value of organically grown and conventionally grown produce, researchers found that, on average, organic fruits and vegetables offer 27 percent more vitamin C, 21 percent more iron, 29 percent more magnesium and 13 percent more phosphorus than conventionally grown produce.
In the Dark
Insomniacs take heed: Recent studies suggest that interrupted sleep patterns may increase your risk for breast cancer. One study associated low levels of melatonin with a higher incidence of breast cancer in Finnish flight attendants. More recently, a study of 44,835 nurses found that those who worked the night shift were twice as likely to develop breast cancer. One reason may be that melatonin, which performs a variety of functions in the body, inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells.
If you sleep with a light on, or if you get up and use a bright light, melatonin production stops for the rest of the night. Sleeping in a place that is as dark as possible is very important for both prevention of and recovery from breast cancer. If you must work the night-shift, try taking 1–3 mg. of supplemental melatonin one to two hours before bedtime. Look for a time-release supplement, which can duplicate the body’s natural secretion of melatonin over several hours per night.
One Last Thing …
What if you have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer? Is the disease inevitable or can you do something to prevent it? Fortunately, recent studies show that women with a strong family history of breast cancer can help prevent the disease by simply changing their lifestyle. One of the most compelling trials involved 1,073 pairs of overweight women between the ages of 18 and 30 who carried a BRCA1 gene mutation. It turns out that losing weight – at least 10 pounds – reduced their risk of early-onset breast cancer by as much as 65 percent.
Approximately 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be attributed to either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutations, and women who inherit either one of these breast cancer susceptibility genes have a lifetime risk of 45 percent to 87 percent for developing breast cancer. But, as this study clearly shows, just because it’s genetic doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.
Research Brief …
That glass of O.J. you have with breakfast might do more than boost your vitamin C intake. It could lower your cholesterol. Researchers have found that certain flavones in oranges and grapefruits can slash total cholesterol by up to 16 percent and LDL cholesterol by an impressive 27 percent.
If you don’t eat a lot of citrus, you can also get your flavones from supplements. Look for a citrus bioflavonoid supplement containing hesperidin and naringin. The typical dose is 500 mg. twice a day. While hesperidin is safe for everyone, some evidence suggests that naringen may increase blood levels of calcium channel blockers, so check with your doctor if you are taking these types of medication.
“Citrus Extracts get cholesterol-lowering boost.” NutraIngredients. 26/3/2007.
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Mitra AK, Faruque FS, Avis AL. “Breast cancer and environmental risks: where is the link?” Journal of Environmental Health. 2004;66:24-32.
Petri AL, Tjønneland A, Gamborg M, et al. “Alcohol Intake, Type of Beverage, and Risk of Breast Cancer in Pre- and Postmenopausal Women.” Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 2004;28:1084-1090.
Touillaud MS, Thiébaut AC, Fournier A, et al. “Dietary lignan intake and postmenopausal breast cancer risk by estrogen and progesterone receptor status.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2007;99:475-486