Have you heard the idea that we can “starve” our cancer cells? I am not only talking about limiting the harmful foods that fuel their growth. Sure, for most people who have cancer, it is imperative to significantly limit certain foods, like sugar, processed foods and low-quality animal protein, that encourage cancer cells to grow even more. We know that a poor diet is a key factor in increasing your cancer risk. But it goes even further than food being used as cancer fuel. There is a magical aspect of our bodies that actually works to starve cancer from the inside out: the potent cancer-fighting cells that live in our gastrointestinal tract.
If you have taken a basic biology or anatomy class, you have likely heard about the cells that work to strengthen and support the immune system. Like me, your high school years may be a bit behind you, but does the term “Helper T Cell” ring a bell to you? T Cells are the most critical cancer fighting immune cells in the human body – and research shows that a whopping seventy percent (!!!) of them reside alongside the lining of the GI tract. This is hugely significant because it means that they can be affected by whatever they interact with – the foods we eat and the medications we take. On top of keeping the immune cells in the gut healthy, it is important to keep the rest of the microbiome in the intestinal tract functioning optimally as well because it all relies on each other.
Over the years, the research has seemed to show that, in general, the more variation in intestinal microflora (also known us gut bacteria) someone has, the better their T Cells will stand up to some forms of cancer and the better their immunotherapy response will be. What scientists and doctors are now finding is that it is not just one kind of bacteria in a probiotic that they can prescribe to cancer patients to help with immunotherapy. In fact, recent data has shown that in some cases prescribing a probiotic prior to treatment made the treatment less effective – sometimes by a significant degree. However, what health professionals are discovering is that there is something else they can “prescribe” to increase the likelihood of effective immunotherapy treatment: fiber.
Yes, a high-fiber diet has been shown to increase the chances of successful immunotherapy treatment by fivefold! This is because the good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract feed off of fiber. So, while it is important to have a healthy microbiome within the gut, it is also very important to be feeding it the correct nutrients. Unfortunately, the data is still limited on what, exactly, the best nutrients are for an optimal gut microbiome for cancer patients. One of the main roadblocks on modern research is the fact that pharmaceutical companies are willing to invest in trials that revolve around immunotherapy drugs, but not on nutrition. That is because there is a lot of money in the medication industry, but it is much harder to patent a certain type of eating pattern than a drug. One thing is clear: a healthy gut positively impacts immunotherapy. There are some steps that you can take today to ensure that your gut microbiome is as healthy as possible – especially if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer.
Reduce toxic trigger foods in your diet such as gluten, dairy, sugar, GMO corn & soy, hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, processed foods and anything you might be allergic or have a sensitivity to: a food allergy can cause an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs and can be life-threatening. Consider taking a daily probiotic to regenerate healthy bacteria in your gut and improve your immune system (unless you are about to begin immunotherapy treatment in which case, speak with your doctor about whether probiotic supplementation is a good idea for you). My favorite brands for probiotics are Seed, Renew Life and Dr. Ohhira’s. You can also add fermented foods into your diet because they have live probiotic cultures that work to increase the health of your gut and immune system. Some of my favorite fermented foods include coconut kefir, coconut yogurt kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, and unpasteurized miso.
You can also supplement daily with L-glutamine, which supports digestion by helping to maintain the mucosal lining of the intestinal tract, which, in turn, supports immune function. Also, it is used throughout the body for tissue repair and immune support. Pure Encapsulations has a fantastic L-Glutamine supplement. I also recommend regularly drinking gut-healing bone broth or adding collagen powder to your nutrient routine. Bone broth contains gelatin- one of the most important nutrients for healing and sealing the gut. It essentially spackles holes in the gut lining, preventing food and bacteria from leaking. My favorite collagen powder is Further Food. You can also take a digestive enzyme because they help to breakdown food better and extract more nutrients. Enzymedica Digest Gold ATPro is wonderful for this. Finally, and most important, add fiber to your diet! Not only does a high-fiber diet fuel the good bacteria in the gut, as I mentioned earlier, it also reduces levels of disease-causing bacteria. We need a minimum of 25 – 35 grams of fiber per day and many people are not consuming anywhere close to that. Some of my favorite sources of fiber are chia seeds, berries, avocados, various legumes and flax seeds.
As always, please speak with a doctor before beginning a new supplement. Happy gut healing!