Are your daily “auto-pilot” habits making you more susceptible to the second greatest cause of death? Most people are unaware of how their daily habits are either enhancing their cancer immunity, or putting a “dangerous target” on their back. Keep reading to learn the critical elements of a cancer-free daily routine.
NOTE: We take a break from the science of learning in June and July. We focus, instead on the two diseases you (or a loved one) are either fighting or hoping to prevent. In June we focus on cancer. In July, our focus is on Alzheimer’s disease. These popular newsletters are packed with valuable information to help you be at your best – for yourself, your family, and your students.
DISCLAIMER: Before I begin any comments about health, I am required by law to make a disclaimer: “The following comments are not meant to diagnose or treat any disease, nor have they been approved by the FDA.” (By the way, an oncologist would have to make a similar disclaimer.)
“You have cancer.” The three most feared words you’ll ever get from a doctor. Every year in the U.S. nearly 2 million people receive that bone-chilling diagnosis. It takes the lives of one in four Americans, making cancer the 2nd leading cause of death.
What do you do with such depressing statistics? You have a couple of options.
Option 1 is to sit back and hope the cancer roulette doesn’t call your number. It was once believed by many that cancer was a hereditary disease or a result of unfortunate luck. Current science now suggests that most cancers (depending on which type) have a shockingly low 2-10% heritability rate.
Why then do you see so much cancer within families? Because the vast majority of our lifestyle habits are learned from our families. When life gets stressful, did you learn (from someone’s example) to sit and overeat? Or to get up and burn off steam by exercising? Did you learn to wipe (poisonous) cream on your body to get a certain look? Or do you protect your skin with a hat and paraben-free sunscreen?
These learned behaviors – habits – are why you see so many familial trends in cancer.
Option 2 is to make simple adjustments to your daily habits to protect you and your loved ones from this painful and deadly disease. This mental shift from bad genes (or bad luck) to “my lifestyle impacts my heath” is empowering. Choosing powerful habits for a cancer-free lifestyle is our focus this month.
The Cancer-Inflammation Connection
The power to protect yourself from cancer is already inside your body. The key is to maintain the daily habits that will unleash an unstoppable immune system on cancer if it ever tries to rear its ugly head. It is the same daily habits that will help prevent and treat most cancers.
When you adopt sub-optimal habits, it takes a toll on your immune system. Not enough sleep, filling your body with junk food, chronic stress, etc. – all these choices deplete your immune system and create inflammation in the body. Inflammation triggers your immune system that something is “off” and jumps into action to fight off the source of inflammation. This is great when you are fighting off a cut, bruise, or seasonal cold.
When the triggers are non-stop, it can create chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a prolonged, low-grade inflammatory response. When your immune system is constantly fighting to destroy certain cells and regenerate tissues, things can sometimes go wrong. Chronic inflammation is one of the main contributors to the formation of new tumors.
Let’s put this all together. Your lifestyle choices impact your immune system function. Some boost your immune system. Some deplete it and cause inflammation. When these choices become prolonged habits, they can cause chronic inflammation. That constant level of “fight mode” has been linked to all chronic diseases, including cancer.
The goal of cancer prevention (and treatment) is to create daily habits that boost your immune system and avoid chronic inflammation.
5 evidence-based daily habits to protect you and your loved ones from cancer
Exercise & Maintain a Healthy Weight
Exercise causes acute inflammation in the body. Acute inflammation is short bouts of immune response surges to heal and strengthen the body. This intentional short-term stress on the body has many benefits. One benefit is the anti-inflammatory protein Interleukin 6 (IL-6) released in your muscles during exercise (Morettini, Palumbo, Sacchetti, Castiglione, & Mazzà, 2017).
The key here is to create a daily habit of exercising to provide a constant flow of anti-inflammatory support to your body. WHAT you do matters less than THAT you do it. And do it daily for at least 10-20 minutes. Bike, swim, run, power walk, anything.
Feel like you don’t have time in your busy schedule to add something new? Take a walk around the neighborhood as you make those few phone calls. Create a system where you can only listen to your favorite podcast or book while exercising. Join the Peloton craze and ride while you watch your favorite show. Stop making excuses and find a way to get your body moving. It is one of your greatest defenses against cancer.
Exercise can also be a powerful strategy for maintaining a healthy weight. This is critical as obesity increases the risk of developing several types of cancer AND decreases your chances of beating it. The estimates claim 14% of cancer deaths in men and 20% in women can be attributed to obesity (Kolb, Sutterwala, & Zhang, 2016).
Obesity (a BMI of 30 or higher) is the presence of excess calories in the gut biome. The strain placed on certain systems in the body to process all the excess is associated with chronic inflammation. If you struggle with obesity, work with your medical professional to create a plan to maintain a healthy weight. You can do it!
Here are the general dietary guidelines to keep you and your loved safe from cancer:
Eat less of the foods known to cause inflammation.
Eat more of the foods known to reduce inflammation.
Foods that increase inflammation are typically high in sugar and or trans fats. That includes things like sodas, fried foods, and white bread/grains. Other foods known to boost inflammation are processed foods, excessive red meat, and alcohol. (More on alcohol in a minute.) If most of your diet is made from a box or is served to you through a drive-thru window you are likely putting yourself at risk.
Foods that decrease inflammation tend to come from the earth. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fresh fish. In addition to more “earthy” foods, consider making a habit of including these four categories of cancer-protectors.
- EGCG is a type of plant compound called catechin. It is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from being damaged by invading cancerous cells. EGCG is best sourced in green tea, but can also be found in smaller amounts in certain fruits (strawberries, blackberries, cherries, peaches, cranberries, apples, avocados, pears, kiwis) and nuts (pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts) (Fujiki, Watanabe, Sueoka, Rawangkan, & Suganuma, 2018).
- Resveratrol is a part of a group of compounds called polyphenols. It has been shown to impact the signaling pathways that control cell division, cell growth, and tumor metastasis. That is all good news for someone trying to prevent, slow, or beat cancer. The most common source of resveratrol is in the skin of red grapes (Bishayee, Politis, & Darvesh, 2010).
You’ve likely read a headline touting a glass of red wine as protection from heart disease, cancer, or another disease linked to chronic inflammation. It is the resveratrol compound that holds the health benefit, not the alcohol. In fact, alcohol is linked to increasing the development and progression of many forms of cancer. Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink a day. Then pick up some high-quality resveratrol from your local health store. A daily shot of resveratrol would be a worthwhile habit to form.
- Isoflavones are part of a group of plant-based chemicals called phytoestrogens. This estrogen-like compound has been found to have anti-cancer properties. Isoflavones are found in edamame, soybeans, miso soup, and tempeh (Hosseinzadeh, Hassanzadeh, Marofi, Alivand, & Solali, 2020).
- Isothiocyanates are a dietary compound shown to reduce the activation of carcinogens and increase their detoxification (Wu, Zhou, & Xu, 2009). Isothiocyanates can be found in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards).Is your mouth watering yet? Probably not. Most people don’t wake up in the morning craving broccoli. I cook broccoli by steaming it lightly, sprinkling a touch on honey to erase the bitter taste, then add mustard seeds to enable the release of the nutrients.
If the thought of forcing down broccoli a couple of times a week makes you cringe, here are some suggestions:
1. Remind yourself of your alternatives – you could be cut open (surgery), poisoned (chemotherapy), or burned (radiation).
2. Take a pill. You can get all the benefits of isothiocyanates in supplement form. The critical ingredient in broccoli is sulforaphane and it takes myrosinase, mustard seeds, and black pepper to activate it. Here is one of my favorite sources: Smoky Mountain brand, Sulforaphane Supplement 75mg with Myrosinase, Broccoli Seeds, Broccoli Sprouts Extract, and Mustard Seeds. Get it at Amazon.
The key to all of these dietary suggestions is to turn them into habits. Think Taco Tuesday, and then upgrade your family traditions to include some of these cancer-preventing foods. Start a routine of a cup of green tea (instead of coffee) to fight off the afternoon slump of energy. A morning shot of resveratrol with breakfast, etc. Ditch your daily soda and drink more water.
Here is the BONUS evidence to give you an extra kick of motivation. Your diet also fosters changes to your genetics to protect you from the cancers that are indeed hereditary (Hardy & Tollefsbol, 2011). How is that possible? “Epigenetics” is the recent field of science that shows that environmental factors (toxins, stressors, food, trauma, drugs, etc.) can influence our genes. The list of excuses is getting smaller.
If there was a way to visibly see the toxins in the air you breathe, and the products in your house, you would certainly make some changes. Since “toxic-ray vision” has yet to be developed we’ll lean on the research to better understand 3 toxins that are strongly linked to cancer.
- Tobacco use increases your risk of developing at least 14 types of cancer. It accounts for 87% of lung cancer deaths and 25-30% of all cancer deaths (Anand et al., 2008). Get the support you need to break any tobacco-related habit. Start today. Call a friend and tell them you’re ready to stop and you want their support.
- Cleaning products are often full of toxins. Certain chemicals are known human carcinogens, meaning they have been found to cause cancer in humans. How can you find out if your favorite cleaning products are full of dangerous toxins? Visit whatsinproducts.com and search for each cleaning product in your house. It will tell you exactly what’s in your product, and if it is a “chemical of concern”. With so many new “clean” cleaning products out there, now is a great time to break old toxic cleaning habits and start new, healthier ones (Rodgers, Udesky, Rudel, & Brody, 2018).
- Beauty products can equally be dangerous. The toxicity in most cleaning products comes from inhaling the fumes. For beauty products, you might be rubbing toxic chemicals right on your skin and being absorbed into your body. Learn to read the labels and get rid of anything with parabens. Use the same website above to check your beauty products – shampoo, conditioner, lotions, sunscreens, hair dyes, etc. Even the deodorant women use is strongly linked to an increase in breast cancer. Why? Daily application of toxins inches away from the chest increases your cancer risks. Learn what’s in everything that touches your body to boost prevention (Harvey, 2003).
The role of Vitamin D in cancer prevention is more nuanced than most topics. On one hand, Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also can repair damage to DNA. On the other hand, too much exposure to UVB rays (a main source of Vitamin D) puts you at risk of certain types of cancer. 40% of the population is Vitamin D deficient, with higher rates among certain minority groups (70% Hispanics; 82% Black).
For most people, getting sufficient Vitamin D requires finding the right balance of the nutrient from foods and exposure to the sun. Almost all of us will need both supply chains to get enough to protect against cancer. Foods high in Vitamin D are salmon, herring, tuna fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, and milk. Then get outside while the sun is out for 15 minutes a day (Jeon & Shin, 2018; Forrest & Stuhldreher, 2011).
Not all stress is bad. The stress that depletes your immune system and can lead to chronic inflammation meets two criteria: 1) it’s out of your control, 2) it’s highly relevant to you. When both of these boxes are checked for you, excessive levels of cortisol are released in your body. Over time, the body becomes less sensitive to the constant flood of cortisol and struggles to regulate the inflammation. This leads to a breakdown of your immune system (Cohen, 2012). It could be something short-term (acute stress like a weather disaster) or more long-term (chronic stress like prolonged financial strain).
Here are 4 key tools to manage your stress levels:
- Self-awareness. Learn to pay attention to what triggers your stress response. Do your thoughts ruminate on past negative experiences? Do you spend too much time with toxic people? Awareness is the first step toward a healthier lifestyle.
- Stress Prevention. To prevent excess stress from taking over your life, reduce the number of things that are “very” important to you. Stick with your core values and let other things go. Reclaim control of areas of your life so less feels out of your control.
- Stress Resistance. Create habits to make you less resistant to stress. Daily exercise, proper sleep, a healthy diet, and meditation can help bolster your immune system to weather any pending stress storms.
- Stress Resilience. Learn to bounce back quickly from high-stress triggers. How? An optimistic and hopeful mindset will remind you that “this too shall pass” and better days are ahead.
As with everything we are discussing here, it is not the rare occasion to be concerned about. A dessert on a special occasion, a one-time visit to a building with asbestos, or a few days of not exercising because of extenuating circumstances will not cause cancer. It is your daily habits that either build up your resilience against or weaken your system.
Making lifestyle changes can feel like a daunting task. Take a deep breath. Evaluate your daily habits and choose one area from above to improve. Make one adjustment today to start a healthier habit to help you and your loved ones stay protected from this nasty disease. For a reminder on how to turn a commitment into a habit, visit the January issue on habit formation.