When Less is More
Several research studies show that people with the highest blood plasma glucose levels get more cancers; and people with cancer who have the highest plasma glucose levels, survive least. This is because tumours love sugar. While cancer cells have to have glucose to metabolise, healthy cells can use other foods such as fat. The process is termed ketosis which releases sirtuins. Sirtuins are highly protective hormones known to be produced under conditions of food deprivation. Food deprivation is also (not surprisingly) associated with leaner bodies. A thinner body has lowered fat stores and fat is the precursor of oestrogen, a hormone known to stimulate many cancers. Fat also traps toxins, and if the fat surrounds vital organs those organs are sloshing around in a toxic bath.
Fasting as a cancer treatment is now rapidly gaining acceptance in many parts of the world where doctors put their patients on a fast before starting chemo or radiotherapy. Of course treatment-induced weight loss occurs anyway during chemotherapy but this is not the same as that brought about by stopping the metabolism from processing food. Fasting may also aid subsequent anti-cancer therapy. In early 2013, The Oncologist magazine commented on recent research that shows restricting calories in patients having radiotherapy produces better results. Fasting does this in two ways according to research done by Dr. Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology and biological science at the University of Southern California (USC) : making the cancer cells more vulnerable to chemotherapy – weakened by lack of energy supply – and reducing side effects in the patient. It is often too late to fast by the time weight loss occurs due to chemotherapy. Shirley’s lung cancer had been hanging around undetected for two years, the doctor prescribing drugs for acid reflux and antibiotics for her cough. Three scans revealed nothing. When a fourth revealed a very old cancer, dead cells surrounded by new ones which were aggressive and growing fast, chemo was begun. Weight loss, loss of appetite and lowered immunity occurred shortly afterwards. She was given very high calorie meals to counteract the dramatic loss of weight, but the cancer spread rapidly. The period from diagnosis to death was under a year. Deborah noticed difficulty in swallowing, and her doctor prescribed antibiotics to deal with a suspected throat infection, which failed to respond. By the time a biopsy detected oesophageal cancer months later, weight loss had already begun due to her inability to swallow, and high calorie liquid meals were fed directly into her system to compensate for the further dramatic weight loss which accompanied the treatment. Within 6 months she had died. It would seem then that there is a window at the beginning of a cancer diagnosis when fasting may be highly effective, and that it could also work if used at the beginning of chemotherapy. However once chemo has weakened the body, a vicious circle sets in.
With 1.6 million new cancer cases in the US every year and round about 500,000 in the larger countries of Europe, there are big profits to be made from chemo. There is evidence that chemotherapy may actually hasten death due to its devastating effect on the immune system. Apart from the diarrhoea, vomiting and fatigue it causes, a study by the Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle showed that cancer cells have the ability to become resistant to the cytostatic agents used in chemotherapy. The cancer cells literally purge themselves of the toxins and emerge stronger. Currently pharmaceutical companies are investing big time in researching drugs which could mimic the body’s starvation response (one might argue cynically that patients hardly need to take drugs when they can fast for free, a factor which will not have escaped the drug companies). In the meantime the UK’s NHS continues to advise patients to drink sugary tea, cakes, buns and special high calorie milkshakes during chemo, a rather disastrous piece of misinformation which turns out to be feeding the tumours, thus strengthening them against the chemo. Emerging evidence questions the genetic origin of cancer and suggests that cancer is primarily a metabolic disease. Once the tumour has been brought under control patients can increase calorie consumption to achieve weight gain. Again according to Professor Longo, famine conditions protect healthy cells from the harmful side effects of chemotherapy. Starved healthy cells go into survival mode during fasting characterized by extreme resistance to stressful circumstances. In essence, these cells are waiting out the lean period, much like hibernating animals. Cancer cells are stuck in a single mode and fail to respond to starvation. Thus fasting can ensure chemo targets only vulnerable cells – the tumours. Moreover, whereas chemo weakens the immune system, fasting for 72 hours has been shown to completely renew it. Interestingly holocaust survivors lived 6 to 18 months longer than average.
At the Buchinger Clinic on Lake Constance guests follow a medically supervised fast for 2 weeks consisting of water and vegetable soup. Long walks and siestas are recommended. Patients report not feeling hungry, the disappearance of aches and pains and a feeling of well-being. Fasting is an ancient therapy, is part of most spiritual traditions and has featured in the treatment of illness since Hippocrates and Plutarch were quoted as asserting, ‘Instead of using medicine, rather fast a day’. It can be used as a protective measure against developing cancer and as an anti-aging mechanism. If we can stop our cells from dividing as much, and if we can prevent the destruction of our DNA through badly copied telomeres, we can live younger and healthier. Multiple studies have found that animals with low calorie diets stay younger and are better shielded against a multitude of diseases, especially cardiovascular (heart related) and neuro-degenerative ones (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.)
As ever, prevention is better than cure. Fasting addresses the symptoms of illness, not the cause. Keeping a close eye on emotional stress, becoming adept at introspection to detect negative emotions within us – jealousy, pride, Schadenfreude – and following the advice in the Temple of Delphi, “Know Thyself”, remain essential tools for combating the body’s stress response which is at the root of all illness. Embarking on an annual fast may also protect us from diseases, especially cancer, for which a cure is yet to be found.