Who doesn’t love the sweet taste of sugar? Commonly associated with love, affection, comfort, and even rewards for doing good things, sweet treats have become a physical and emotional addiction in our culture and the health effects are numerous. You may already know that high sugar consumption can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, but there is also a large body of evidence that links sugar and cancer. Today, I want to focus on the sugar-cancer connection and how we can help reduce our cancer risk by reducing or eliminating sugars.
Like our other white devils – white flour, white table salt and white oils – white refined sugar is a dangerous substance that is stripped of vitamins and minerals, leaving our bodies with the extra work of metabolizing them without receiving any benefit in return. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world, and accounted for 8.8 million deaths around the world in 2015. During the next two decades, newly diagnosed cancer cases are predicted to rise by 70%.
So how does sugar enter into all of this? I’ll get to more details in a moment, but first I’d like to draw your attention to some new, groundbreaking research published in the journal Nature that discovered sugar triggers cancer cell growth and actually helps them multiply much more quickly. At long last, this was considered clear-cut evidence for the sugar and cancer link, but for those of us who have been in the functional medicine or holistic health field for awhile, this data has been building for a long time.
Cancer, Sugar and the Immune System
Our immune system is designed to protect our bodies from invaders and foreign materials, as well as from any abnormal developments that occur inside of us. A strong immune system is essential to both preventing and battling cancer (if it occurs). Unfortunately, sugar consumption suppresses our immune system, potentially leaving us susceptible to immune-mediated diseases like cancer. Some of the evidence linking sugar to specific cancers includes:
Colon Cancer: One study of over 35,000 US residents found that sucrose consumption was linked to colon cancer. Similarly, another investigation concluded that dietary sugars – especially foods high in simple carbohydrates – boosted the risk of colon cancer.
Prostate Cancer: In an analysis of more than 8,000 healthy men, researchers found that eating refined carbohydrates may increase the risk of prostate cancer, while this Italian study concluded that refined cereals and sugars boosted prostate cancer risk. Other evidence indicates that sugar increases the levels of estradiol in men, which can also contribute to the development of prostate cancer. (You can read more about prostate cancer in my two part series: Beyond the ‘Mo’ Part 1 and Beyond the ‘Mo’ Part 2.)
Ovarian Cancer: Some evidence indicates that foods that have a high glycemic load may boost the risk of ovarian cancer. Inflammatory foods have been linked to a risk of ovarian cancer, and I would certainly place sugar in the inflammatory category.
Breast Cancer: In the early 1980s, scientists began identifying the link between sugar and breast cancer, noting that women had an increased risk of mortality with sugar consumption. Later research concludes that dietary sugar and eating sweets, such as desserts and sugary drinks, can increase the risk of breast cancer and instigate an enzymatic pathway that leads to mammary tumor growth. Another study, which compared 382 cancer patients to the same number of controls, found that the women who ate the most sugar had a two-fold increased risk of breast cancer.
Pancreatic Cancer: Our pancreas is an essential organ that helps us produce insulin and balance our blood sugar levels. Excess sugar can send our pancreatic hormones into disarray, and high glycemic foods can increase our risk of pancreatic cancer. This prospective study of nearly 800 men and women showed that sugary foods were associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Diabetes is one of the most common disorders of the pancreas, and research indicates that there may be a link between diabetes and pancreatic cancer, too.
Gastric Cancer: In a controlled study of 92 people in France, consumption of cakes, pastries and candy was associated with an increased risk for gastric cancer.
Biliary Cancer (Liver + Gallbladder): This large study of over 70,000 men examined sugary beverage consumption and found that sweetened drinks led to a higher risk of gallbladder cancer, while another analysis of 477,206 people from 10 European countries discovered a link between soft drinks and hepatocellular carcinoma. Yet another meta-analysis found that elevated blood sugar levels increases our risk of liver cancer.
The good news is there are lots of ways that we can help to build a strong immune system. And eliminating sugar is definitely a great step to take!
Cancer, Sugar and Insulin
There is a lot of research that delves into the link between insulin and cancer. When we consume carbohydrates, our pancreas must secrete insulin to help shuttle the sugars into the cells where it is needed. We need insulin whether we are eating natural forms of sugars and carbohydrates (fruit, veggies, raw honey, gluten-free grains, etc.) or white, refined sugars (pastries, juice, candy, soft drinks, etc.). However, the refined sugars hit the bloodstream much more quickly than something like a piece of fruit, which has fibre to slow down absorption, as well as vitamins and minerals to help with processing and metabolizing the sugar.
The problem is, when we eat much more sugar than we need, our bodies may develop insulin resistance and we aren’t able to respond to it properly. We can also store excess sugars as fat, which can lead to obesity – another risk factor for diabetes.
Evidence indicates that there is a connection between insulin and cancer. High levels of insulin can stimulate the growth of cancer cells and enhance tumor growth, plus, cancer cells have more insulin receptors, so those cells will thrive off of our sugar consumption. This meta-analysis of many different cancers concluded there was an association between blood glucose levels and cancer. People with Type 2 diabetes are also more likely to develop cancer – and there are 422 million people around the world with diabetes. That’s a lot of people who are at risk for a debilitating disease.
Another part of the picture is cortisol, which works to raise our blood sugar levels if they drop too low. This can happen when we eat too much sugar and our bodies subsequently over-produce insulin to get the sugar out of our bloodstream (you may also recognize this as the blood sugar roller coaster). High cortisol levels can be inflammatory, leading to an increased risk of cancer.
Cancer, Sugar and Inflammation
Refined sugar is inflammatory in the body and research indicates it has a negative impact on a range of inflammatory diseases, including the major ones like cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and liver disease.
Inflammation is a very powerful tumor promoter – it helps to facilitate tumor growth and metastasis. Chronic inflammation can actually boost our risk of cancer and up to 20% of all cancers occur at the place in the body where we experience inflammation.
Many people don’t realize that controlling your blood sugar is critical for maintaining an anti-inflammatory state. Refined sugars, as well as other foods with a high glycemic index, jack up the levels of insulin, creating a hyper-insulin response. These elevated insulin levels can skew the omega-6 fatty acids in our bodies toward a pro-inflammatory pathway, creating molecules called prostaglandins that cause inflammation. You can read more about blood sugar and inflammation and discover some awesome inflammation-fighters to include in your diet.
What this all means is effectively managing our blood sugar levels and eliminating refined sugars is a crucial component to reducing inflammation and our cancer risk.
Cancer, Sugar and the Liver
Many of the sugars we eat contain fructose, including white refined sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup, an extremely common sweetener added to an array of processed foods. Fructose must be metabolized by the liver and when we eat an excess of sugar, the liver can become overloaded, potentially leading to conditions like high blood sugar, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver cancer.
Cutting out refined sugars from the diet can help to lower the burden on the liver. Detoxification practices, including diet, skin brushing, infrared saunas, supplements and hydration can also help to improve liver health.
How to Eliminate Refined Sugars
- Read Labels. Sugar is everywhere, particularly in packaged and processed foods. We can even find it in savory items like bread or canned tomatoes where we may not expect added sugars. Get into the habit of reading the ingredient lists on what you buy and choosing options that don’t have sugar added to them.
- Try a no-sugar challenge for a week. This is a great way to purge your dependency on sugar and kickstart healthier habits. This is a wonderful, low-cost sugar challenge that includes menu plans, shopping lists, snack ideas and other information to support you on your no-sugar journey.
- Choose whole foods. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, eggs, fish, meat and poultry and gluten-free grains are all part of a blood sugar stabilizing diet. Even items that have a sweet taste, like fruit, are going to have fibre and other nutrients that support our health.
- Focus on low-glyemic foods. Consult the glycemic index to determine how quickly a food will impact your blood sugar.
- Ensure blood sugar balance with protein, fibre and fat. These three elements are key to helping us feel full and ensuring a slow release of sugar into the bloodstream. Design your meals to include good sources of protein (or protein powder if necessary) and healthy fats.
Dropping refined sugars from your diet definitely isn’t easy, especially if you are used to eating a lot of them, but the short-term and long-term benefits are worth the effort. The important thing is to keep working at eliminating them every day and moving our health forward, instead of backward.