Angelina Jolie, cancer, your genes and your fate

Angelina-Jolie-1

Angelina Jolie

It must have taken courage for Angelina Jolie to tell the world, via an article in the New York Times, that she had undergone a preventive double mastectomy.  A-list actresses are usually judged on their body image as much as on their acting ability.

Angelina made this choice because her doctors had warned her that she has an 87% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of getting ovarian cancer because her mother died of breast cancer and she carries the BRCA1 gene.

I respect Angelina for making a choice which felt right for her and her family.

That is all any of us can do when faced with difficult decisions and the tsunami of judgement that has greeted her article is regrettable.

The story does, however, raise fascinating questions about whether we are really at the mercy of our genes.

Do our genes dictate our fate or do we have any power over them?

I want to tell you what I think and why.

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In 1868, Friedrich Miescher discovered the presence of DNA, and in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered its molecular structure, with the help of Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Erwin Chargaff and Linus Pauling.

DNA Watson and Crick

In the years that followed, scientists have learned a great deal about how this genetic code dictates who we are.

Our DNA – specifically the 25,000 genes identified by the Human Genome Project – is now widely regarded as the instruction book for the human body.

Genetic science has attracted billions of dollars of research funding and was heralded as the key to understanding and curing diseases like cancer.

The trouble is that despite all the money that has been poured into it, our knowledge of genetics has not yielded the promised revolutionary cures for cancer on a widespread scale.

Whilst the latest official report on the “War on Cancer” from America indicates that death rates for all cancers combined decreased by 1.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2009 [1], this is no greater than the previous five year period.

Deaths are still rising for certain cancer types including liver, pancreatic, uterus and, among men, melanoma.  Rates of human papillomavirus (HPV)–related cancers, such as oral, anal, vaginal, vulval, penis and cervical, also remain stubbornly high despite the availability of a vaccine.  And many epithelial cancers (carcinomas) and effectively all mesenchymal cancers (sarcomas) remain incurable.

There were decreases in new breast cancer cases about a decade ago, as many women stopped using hormone therapy after menopause.  Since then, overall breast cancer incidence has reached a plateau, and rates have increased among black women.

The decrease in cancer mortality is driven largely by the decrease in cancer incidence, which is mostly because of the decrease in smoking [1]. Smoking can cause more than a dozen cancers, including lung, head, neck, bladder and mouth.

smoking addiction

Although improvements in screening and treatment for breast and some other cancers have cut death rates, most of the expensive new drugs prolong survival for no more than three or four months on average.

James Watson, famous for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, wrote in a recent edition of the Royal Society Journal “Open Biology”[2]:

Even though an increasing variety of intelligently designed, gene-targeted drugs now are in clinical use, they generally only temporarily hold back the fatal ravages of major cancers such as those of the lung, colon and breast that have become metastatic and gone beyond the reach of the skilled surgeon or radiotherapist.  Even though we will soon have comprehensive views of how most cancers arise and function at the genetic and biochemical level, their ‘curing’ seems now to many seasoned scientists an even more daunting objective than when the ‘War on Cancer’ was started by President Nixon in December 1971.

When we look at the decades of investments, the cost of treatments, the number of researchers and journals, and at the number of people who continue to die, we have to ask if we are barking up the wrong tree.

I believe we are.

The reality is that as fast as scientists find a ‘magic bullet’ to block a particular protein or cellular pathway to decimate cancer cells, the cancer cells find a way to circumvent the therapy, thrive and proliferate.

How do they do this?

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Well it turns out that DNA, the genome, is only half the story.

This should not be a surprise given that chromosomes contain only 50 per cent DNA; the other 50 per cent is protein.

Within each chromosome, DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones.  Both DNA and histones are covered in millions of tiny chemical tags.

This second layer of structure comprising histones and chemical tags is called the epigenome – meaning literally “above the genome”.

The epigenome shapes the physical structure of the genome, the DNA.  It tightly wraps inactive genes making them unreadable.  It relaxes around active genes making them easily accessible.

Epigenome

Epigenome

Different sets of genes are active in different cell types.

A human liver cell, for example, contains the same DNA as a brain cell, yet somehow it knows to code only those proteins needed for the functioning of the liver.  Those instructions are found not in the letters of the DNA itself but on the array of chemical tags which are part of the epigenome.

The DNA code remains fixed for life but the epigenome is flexible.

Epigenetic tags react to signals within the cell environment and to signals from the outside environment, such as diet, stress and our thoughts.

The epigenome adjusts the expression of specific genes in response to our rapidly changing environment.

How does this work?

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In the 1980s, researchers discovered that the answer to this question lay in specific chemical modifications to genomic DNA and its associated histone proteins, without changing the DNA itself at all.

What are these modifications?

In school biology lessons we learn that DNA is built from four different units called nucleotides: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine.

In one type of epigenetic modification, a methyl group (one carbon atom linked to three hydrogen atoms -CH3) is added to specific cytosine bases of the DNA with help from enzymes.

Microsoft PowerPoint - Presentation1 (3) [Read-Only]

DNA methylation. Credit: Adrian Bird

This process, called DNA methylation, is known to play a key role in both development and disease.

Methylation of DNA affects the way the molecule is shaped and, consequently, regulates which genes are available to be ‘read’ or transcribed.

Recently, another type of epigenetic modification of DNA was discovered: the addition of a hydroxymethyl group (–CH2–OH) to specific cytosine bases of DNA.

Histone proteins can also be modified in a number of ways; in addition to methylation, they can be modified with acetyl groups (acetylation), phosphate groups (phosphorylation), ubiquitin proteins (ubiquitylation), and SUMO proteins (sumoylation).

But epigenetic phenomena are not restricted to DNA methylation and various types of histone modifications.

Scientists have found that RNA molecules themselves can also regulate DNA directly by physically blocking or influencing the reading of DNA sequences.

These RNA molecules aren’t the classic messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules we learn about in school biology that carry the information from DNA in the nucleus to the cytoplasm of a cell.  Rather, these RNA molecules – called antisense RNAs, microRNAs, and noncoding RNAs – stay primarily within the nucleus, where they induce changes in DNA function.

It is not yet fully understood how these RNA molecules work but it appears they may bind to histone proteins and/or help to turn off gene promoters.

So how does the environment interact with the epigenome and influence our genes?

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One of the most exciting discoveries of modern science is that our DNA, the genome, responds dynamically to the environment.

Stress, diet, behaviour, toxins and other factors activate the chemical tags or switches that turn our genes on and off.

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Nutrition is one of the easier environmental factors to study with respect to epigenetic changes and is receiving considerable research effort.

One of the most stunning examples of the effect of nutrition on gene expression was an experiment conducted at Duke University in 2000 [3].

Randy Jirtle and his postdoctoral student Robert Waterland took pairs of fat, yellow mice which carry the agouti gene, which is also found in humans.  This gene makes the rats extremely hungry and renders them prone to obesity, diabetes and cancer.

agoutimice

Typically, when agouti mice breed, most of the offspring are identical to the parents: yellow, fat and susceptible to disease.

In this experiment, the researchers simply changed the diet of the mothers.

Before conception and during pregnancy, one set of mice were fed a diet containing nutrients rich in methyl groups, for example, folate and the B vitamins.  These molecules are found in many plant foods and in supplements given to pregnant women.  The other set of genetically identical mice were fed a regular diet low in these nutrients over the same time period.

Mice with the agouti gene (picture from University of Utah)

Mice with the agouti gene (picture from University of Utah)

To the researchers’ amazement, the mothers fed the methyl rich diet produced brown, slim, healthy offspring, whereas the mothers on the normal diet produced the typical yellow, fat and sickly offspring.  The only difference between the two was the diet the mothers were given.

Methyl groups from the dietary supplements (folic acid, vitamin B12, choline, and betaine) bound to the DNA of the mice, increasing DNA methylation and preventing the agouti gene from being expressed.

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Chemicals and additives that enter our bodies can also affect the epigenome.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a compound used to make polycarbonate plastic.  It is in many consumer products including water bottles and the lining of tin cans.

When pregnant yellow agouti mothers were fed BPA, more yellow, unhealthy babies were born than normal.  Exposure to BPA during early development had caused decreased methylation of the agouti gene.

However, when BPA-exposed, pregnant yellow mice were fed a diet containing B vitamins, folate, choline and betaine, which are rich in methyl groups, the offspring were predominantly brown.  The maternal nutrient supplementation had counteracted the negative effects of exposure to a genotoxic chemical [4].

Mice with the agouti gene

Mice with the agouti gene fed with Bisphenol A

The father’s diet may be important too.

A Swedish paper published in 2007 [5] provided evidence from historical records that a shortage of food for grandfathers was associated with extended lifespan of their grandchildren.  Food abundance, on the other hand, was associated with a greatly shortened lifespan of the grandchildren due to diabetes and heart disease.

This suggests the possibility that during this critical period of development for the grandfather, epigenetic mechanisms are “capturing” nutritional information about the environment to pass on to the next generation.

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Honey bees, too, provide a beautiful example of the power of nutrition over gene expression.

The larvae that develop into workers and queens are genetically identical.  Larvae destined to become queens, however, are fed a diet of royal jelly in a special compartment in the hive called a queen cup.

Queen cup

Queen cup

Royal jelly is a complex, protein-rich substance secreted from glands on the heads of worker bees.   Consumption of royal jelly enables the queen to develop functional ovaries and a larger abdomen for egg laying, while worker bees remain sterile.

The queen also develops different behaviours from those of the workers, becoming more aggressive, looking for mates and communicating using sounds.  The queen is fed royal jelly exclusively for the rest of her life.

In a recent series of experiments, scientists determined that royal jelly silences a key gene (Dnmt3), which codes for an enzyme involved in genome-wide gene silencing [6].  When Dnmt3 is active in bee larvae, the queen genes are epigenetically silenced and the larvae develop into the default “worker” variety.  But when royal jelly turns Dnmt3 off, certain genes jump into action that turn the larvae into queens.

This is all very interesting but how is it relevant to cancer?

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Cancer develops when a cell becomes abnormal and begins to grow out of control.

Normal cells and cancer cells

Normal cells and cancer cells (picture from University of Utah)

Cancer can begin when a mutation changes a cell’s DNA sequence.  We know that mutations in at least several hundred human genes (out of a total of 25 000 genes) can lead to the abnormal cell growth and division process that generates human cancer [7].

But cancer cells also have abnormal epigenomes.

In many cancers, some genes are turned up and some are turned down – often in the same cells.  Cancer is just one in a growing number of diseases that are being linked to changes in the epigenome.

Some cancer cells have a lower level of methylation (more active DNA) than healthy cells.

less methyl - genes on

Too little methylation causes:

  • activation of genes that promote cell growth
  • chromosome instability – highly active DNA is more likely to be duplicated, deleted and moved to other locations
  • loss of imprinting.  For most genes, we inherit two working copies – one from each parent. But with imprinted genes, we inherit only one working copy. Depending on the gene, either the copy from your mother or your father is epigenetically silenced.  Silencing usually happens through the addition of methyl groups during egg or sperm formation.

Cancer cells can also have genes that have more methyl (are less active) than normal.

More methylation - genes off (picture from University of Utah)

The types of genes that are turned down in cancer cells:

  • keep cell growth in check
  • repair damaged DNA
  • initiate programmed cell death

But here is the real magic.

Unlike mutations, DNA methylation and histone modifications are reversible.

Researchers are thus exploring drug therapies that can change the epigenetic profiles of cancer cells.  One challenge with epigenetic therapies is figuring out how to target drugs to the right genes in the right tissues.

It is for example possible to reactivate dormant tumour-suppressor genes with drugs which remove methyl groups from histone proteins [8].

DNA demethylating drugs in low doses have clinical activity against some tumours, for example, leukaemia, but have not yet been shown to have activity against solid tumours [9].

A key problem is that these demethylating agents are non-specific, often toxic and can potentially exert their effects in healthy tissues paradoxically causing new tumours to develop.

Other drugs targeted at the epigenome are the histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors.

These can induce differentiation, cell-cycle arrest, and programmed cell death (apoptosis) in vitro, although it has not been possible to pinpoint a specific mechanism that explains these effects [10].

In clinical trials, HDAC inhibitors are associated with a low incidence of adverse events.  The first drug of this type, suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid (vorinostat),has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma [11].  The efficacy of HDAC inhibitors in the treatment of other tumours is limited.

Research on manipulating specific targets in the epigenome with drugs is, in my view, likely to be as doomed to failure as the decades of research looking for drugs which target the genome.

This is because complex biological systems like the human body operate through a large number of simultaneous reactions occurring in a highly integrated and concerted manner.

The body has multiple back-up systems in case one system is bypassed.

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Nutrition, epigenetics and cancer

In addition to drug research, there is also considerable interest in the way nutrients affect the epigenome in relation to cancer [12] [13] [14] [15].

Extensive review of the highest quality papers in the scientific literature by a team of international experts on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund has led to the view that at least 30-40 per cent of cancers potentially can be avoided through dietary modification [16].

Many bioactive components have been identified in food, which are protective at different stages of cancer formation.  Diet has been implicated in many pathways involved in carcinogenesis, including apoptosis, cell cycle control, differentiation, inflammation, angiogenesis, DNA repair, and carcinogen metabolism [12].  These are also processes likely to be regulated by DNA methylation and other epigenetic events.

A host of bioactive substances in the diet, from alcohol to zinc, have been shown to modulate DNA methylation and cancer susceptibility [12] [16].

Dietary factors that are involved in one-carbon metabolism provide the most compelling data for the interaction of nutrients and DNA methylation because they influence the supply of methyl groups and therefore the biochemical pathways of methylation processes. These nutrients include vitamin B12, vitamin B6, folate, methionine, and choline.

b-vitamin

A large number of epidemiologic and clinical studies suggest that dietary folate intake and blood folate concentrations are inversely associated with colorectal cancer risk [17].

Alcohol consumption increases breast cancer incidence by 41 percent for women consuming 30-60 g/day alcohol compared to non-drinking women [18].  Alcohol consumption has been shown to alter folate metabolism and increase cancer susceptibility [19] [20].

adults drinking

Sulforaphanes from broccoli, diallyl disuphides from garlic and resveratrol in wine, have been shown (in vitro and in vivo) to alter epigenetic processes with positive consequences for cell function, including control of proliferation, upregulated apoptosis and a reduction in inflammation [21].

broccoli

Green tea polyphenols have been shown to inhibit carcinogenesis through effects on DNA methylation in many animal models [22].

green tea

Soy phytoestrogens, such as genistein, have been shown to prevent certain mammary and prostate cancers via protective DNA methylation [12].

Apigenin in parsley, curcumin in turmeric, and coffee polyphenols are reported to inhibit DNA methyltransferase enzyme activity in various cancer models [23] [24].

soy turmeric parsley

Zinc deficiency, selenium deficiency and vitamin A excess have been associated with DNA hypomethylation in rat liver, whilst vitamin C deficiency caused hypermethylation in lung cancer cells [12].

There are many more examples but these few serve to illustrate the fact that many dietary components interact in a complex and dynamic manner with the epigenome to alter gene expression and susceptibility to cancer and other diseases.

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Whilst studying the effect of individual nutrients on epigenetic processes is instructive, it is far too simplistic.  Food contains an extraordinary array of nutrients and other substances that work together in concert to create health or disease.

china study

Professor T. Colin Campbell’s thought-provoking book “The China Study” opened up the scientific literature on the effect of diet on health to a wide audience.  He explained the evidence showing that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat, dramatically reducing the risk of a range of chronic diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and many cancers.

This dietary effect is due to the consumption of myriad beneficial substances found in whole plant foods, which interact with the epigenome to ensure that our genes are switched on and off correctly. 

Colin Campbell expands on this theme in his new book “Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition”, due out on 23 May 2013.  He argues that nutritional science, long stuck in a reductionist mindset, is at the cusp of a revolution.  He writes:

The traditional “gold standard” of nutrition research has been to study one chemical at a time in an attempt to determine its particular impact on the human body. These sorts of studies are helpful to food companies trying to prove there is a chemical in milk or pre-packaged dinners that is “good” for us, but they provide little insight into the complexity of what actually happens in our bodies or how those chemicals contribute to our health.

Diet is, however, only one of many environmental influences on the way our genes behave.

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There is also a growing body of scientific research surfacing from the medical literature showing that our thoughts and emotions directly affect expression of our genes.

Mind over Medicine Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin MD’s new book “Mind over Medicine” is an excellent and readable synopsis of some of the key studies in this area and is thoroughly recommended.

David Hamilton PhD is an organic chemist who used to work in pharmaceutical research inventing drugs for cardiovascular disease.  He left his job because he became more interested in the placebo effect than the effect of drugs he was trying to invent.  David has also written some fascinating books on the science of how the mind affects the body, including “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body”.

Bruce Lipton PhD, a developmental cell biologist and former Professor of Anatomy at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, was one of the original researchers in the field of epigenetics and opened my eyes to its exciting advances in his book “The Biology of Belief”.

Dean Ornish MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has been actively researching the effects of lifestyle factors, including diet, thoughts, social interactions and love, on cancer and other diseases for over 35 years.

The research that he and his colleagues conducted has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Circulation, The New England Journal of Medicine, the American Journal of Cardiology, The Lancet Oncology, and elsewhere.

research-journals

This research is not pseudoscience woo-woo.  It is high quality, properly designed and controlled, peer-reviewed science published in some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world.  And it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The knowledge and understanding we are gaining from modern scientific research in the field of epigenetics has profound implications.

It demonstrates that we do not have to be the victims of our genes.

Genes may predispose us to certain health conditions but their presence does not inevitably determine our health outcomes.

Our environment and lifestyle choices – the thoughts we think, the food and drink we consume, our physical activity, whether or not we smoke, our relationships, our work, our finances, our level of stress, our stewardship of the earth – all interact with our genes to determine our fate.

The truth is that all of us will die one day.

While we are here, though, it is about having a life, not just living.

So embrace your power, trust your instincts about what is best for you, and do not allow fear-mongers on both sides of controversial debates, like the one about Angelina Jolie, scare you to death.

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References

[1] Jemal, A. et al (2013).  Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975–2009, Featuring the Burden and Trends in Human Papillomavirus (HPV)–Associated Cancers and HPV Vaccination Coverage Levels.  JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2013) doi: 10.1093/jnci/djs491 First published online: January 7, 2013

http://m.jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/01/03/jnci.djs491.full

[2] Watson, J.  Oxidants, antioxidants and the current incurability of metastatic cancers.  Open Biol. 2013 3, 120144, published online 8 January 2013

[3] Waterland RA, Jirtle RL. Transposable elements: targets for early nutritional effects on epigenetic gene regulation. Mol Cell Biol 2003;23(15):5293–5300

[4] Dolinoy D.C., Huang D., Jirtle R.L. (2007). Maternal nutrient supplementation counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA hypomethylation in early development. PNAS, 104: 13056-13061.

[5] Kaati G., Bygren L.O., Pembrey M., Sjostrom M. (2007). Transgenerational response to nutrition, early life circumstances and longevity. European Journal of Human Genetics, 15: 784-790.

[6] Kucharski R., Maleszka J., Foret S., Maleszka R. Nutritional Control of Reproductive Status in Honeybees via DNA Methylation (2008). Science, 319: 1827-1830 (registration required).

[7] Jones S, Vogelstein B, Velculescu VE, Kinzler KW. 2008 Core signaling pathways in human pancreatic cancers revealed by global genomic analyses. Science 321, 1801. (doi:10.1126/science.1164368)

[8] Esteller, M.  Epigenetics in cancer.  N Engl J Med 2008;358:1148-59.

[9] Mack GS. Epigenetic cancer therapy makes headway. J Natl Cancer Inst 2006; 98:1443-4.

[10] Bolden JE, Peart MJ, Johnstone RW.Anticancer activities of histone deacetylase inhibitors. Nat Rev Drug Discov 2006;5:769-84.

[11] Marks PA, Breslow R. Dimethyl sulfoxide to vorinostat: development of this histone deacetylase inhibitor as an anticancer drug. Nat Biotechnol 2007;25:84-90.

[12] Davis, C.D and Uthus, E.O. DNA Methylation, Cancer Susceptibility and Nutrient Interactions. Exp Biol Med November 2004 vol. 229 no. 10, 988-995

[13] Khan, S.I. et al (2012). Epigenetic Events Associated with Breast Cancer and Their Prevention by Dietary Components Targeting the Epigenome. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2012, 25, 61–73

[14] Liu, L. Et al. Aging, cancer and nutrition: the DNA methylation connection. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development Volume 124, Issues 10–12, December 2003, Pages 989–998

[15] Su, L.J. et al.  Epigenetic contributions to the relationship between cancer and dietary intake of nutrients, bioactive food components, and environmental toxicants. Frontiers in Genetics, Vol 2, Article 91, 1-12,, 09 January 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fgene.2011.00091

[16] World Cancer Research Organisation. 2nd Expert Report: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2007. http://www.dietandcancerreport.org/expert_report/report_contents/index.php

[17] Kim Y.-I.  Folate and DNA methylation: a mechanistic link between folate deficiency and colorectal cancer? Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 13:511–519, 2004.

[18] Smith-Warner, S.A. et al.  Alcohol and breast cancer in women.  A pooled analysis of cohort studies.  JAMA 279 (1998), 535-540.

[19] van Engeland M, Weijenberg MP, Roemen GM, Brink M, de Bruine AP, Goldbohm RA, van den Brandt PA, Baylin SB, de Goeij AF, Herman JG. Effects of dietary folate and alcohol intake on promoter methylation in sporadic colorectal cancer: the Netherlands cohort study on diet and cancer. Cancer Res 63:3133–3137, 2003

[20] Choi SW, Stickel F, Baik HW, Kim YI, Seitz HK, Mason JB. Chronic alcohol consumption induces genomic but not p53-specific DNA hypomethylation in rat colon. J Nutr 129:1945–1950, 1999.

[21] Ross SA, Dwyer J, Umar A et al. (2008) Diet, epigenetic events and cancer prevention. Nutr Rev 66 (Suppl. 1), S1–S6.

[22] Fang MZ, Wang Y, Ai N, Hou Z, Sun Y, Lu H, Welsh W, Yang CS. Tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate inhibits DNA methyltransferase and reactivates methylation-silenced genes in cancer celllines. Cancer Res 63:7563–7570, 2003.

[23] Meeran, S. M., Ahmed, A., and Tollefsbol, T. O. (2010) Epigenetic targets of bioactive dietary components for cancer prevention and therapy. Clin. Epigenetics 1, 101–116.

[24] Lee, W. J., and Zhu, B. T. (2006) Inhibition of DNA methylation by caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, two common catechol-containing coffee polyphenols. Carcinogenesis 27, 269–277.

How to prevent cancer

Vegetables and FruitsSix years ago the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research published the mother of all literature reviews on food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer (1).

A panel of 21 world-renowned scientists reviewed the research evidence and drew conclusions based on in-depth analysis of over 7,000 scientific studies published on cancer prevention over the last 50 years.

As a result of this review they made a number of recommendations:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day
  3. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods and avoid sugary drinks
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and pulses
  5. Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats
  6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 per day for men and 1 per day for women
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt
  8. Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer
  9. Do not smoke or chew tobacco
  10. Breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods
  11. After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

Since then further research has been conducted to see whether compliance with these recommendations has any effect on the risk of death from cancer and other diseases.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on 3 April 2013 (2).

Researchers investigated nearly 380,000 people in nine European countries over 12 years and examined their diet and lifestyle to see how closely they complied with seven of World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research’s (WCRF/AICR) Recommendations for Cancer Prevention.

They found that the risk of dying from several diseases, including cancer, circulatory diseases and respiratory diseases, can be reduced by 34 per cent if these recommendations are followed.

Those who most closely followed the WCRF/AICR Recommendations had a 50 per cent reduced chance of dying from respiratory disease, 44 per cent for circulatory disease and 20 per cent for cancer, when compared to the group with the lowest level of compliance.

The Recommendations with the greatest impact on reducing the risk of death from disease were being as lean as possible without becoming underweight (22 per cent reduced risk) and eating mostly plant foods (21 per cent).

In terms of cancer, limiting alcohol consumption and following the plant food recommendation reduced the risk of dying from the disease by the greatest margin, at 21 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.

The study is the first to examine breastfeeding as part of a combination of lifestyle changes to see what effect it has on risk of dying.  It showed that women who breastfed for at least six months had a reduced risk of death from cancer (ten per cent) and circulatory disease (17 per cent).

Although the WRCF/AICR recommendations were focused on the prevention of cancer, this study shows that adherence to these recommendations also reduces the risk of other diseases.

The bottom line is that maintaining a lean body by consuming a predominantly plant-based diet, being physically active and minimising intake of alcohol is most likely to protect you from cancer.  Looking after yourself in this way will also help to reduce your risk of circulatory and respiratory diseases.

If you would like to learn about how to introduce more plant-based dishes into your diet why not sign up for free email updates with information, recipes and news and visit my website at http://www.cookingforhealth.biz.

You can also stay in touch by joining me on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn.

References

1. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC : AICR, 2007.

2. Adherence to the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research guidelines and risk of death in Europe: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Nutrition and Cancer cohort study. Anne-Claire Vergnaud et al. 3 April 2013, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Pope Francis, food and the mystics

pope francisAlmost every article I have read about the new Pope Francis mentions his humility, the simplicity of his home, his dedication to serving the poor and the fact that he cooks for himself.

This led me to wonder what he eats.

According to an article in the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion in 2009, he chooses healthy frugal food and occasionally drinks a glass of wine. He is said to like fruit, skinless chicken and salads. When in Buenos Aires, he apparently never ate out in restaurants. He would eat by himself and would not even join meals at parish churches in his diocese. On the rarest of occasions, he might break from his routine of eating in his own quarters to visit a nunnery to enjoy bagna cauda – a fondue of anchovies, garlic and olive oil.

The simplicity of Pope Francis’ diet reminds me of the story of Daniel and his friends in the Christian Bible (Daniel 1).

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia attacked Jerusalem and surrounded the city. He captured King Jehoiakim and seized treasures from the Temple.

a Daniel_befrore_NebuchadnezzarNebuchadnezzar then ordered his chief official, Ashpenaz, to select some young men from the noble and royal families of the Israelite exiles to serve in his court. They had to be handsome, intelligent, well-trained, quick to learn, and free from physical defects. Ashpenaz was to teach them to read and write the Babylonian language. The king also gave orders that every day they were to be given the same food and wine as the members of the royal court. After three years of this training they were to appear before the king. Among those chosen were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were from the tribe of Judah. The chief official gave them new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel made up his mind not to let himself become ritually unclean by eating the food and drinking the wine of the royal court, so he asked Ashpenaz to help him. Ashpenaz was sympathetic to Daniel but was afraid of the king. So he said to Daniel, “The king has decided what you are to eat and drink, and if you don’t look as fit as the other young men, he may kill me.”

So Daniel went to the guard whom Ashpenaz had placed in charge of him and his three friends. “Test us for ten days,” he said. “Give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare us with the young men who are eating the food of the royal court, and base your decision on how we look.”

He agreed to let them try it for ten days. When the time was up, they looked healthier and stronger than all those who had been eating the royal food. So from then on the guard let them continue to eat vegetables instead of what the king provided.

God gave the four young men knowledge and skill in literature and philosophy. In addition, he gave Daniel skill in interpreting visions and dreams.

At the end of the three years set by the king, Ashpenaz took all the young men to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them all, and Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah impressed him more than any of the others. So they became members of the king’s court. No matter what question the king asked or what problem he raised, these four knew ten times more than any fortune teller or magician in his whole kingdom. Daniel remained at the royal court until Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, conquered Babylonia.

Daniel was not alone in his experience with food. Mystics of all traditions teach that diet influences spiritual awareness.

plant based diets

Many spiritual masters of the East, including Hindus, and various schools of yoga, divide foods into three basic categories: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (kingly), and Tamasic (impure). They teach that this last category of foods, which includes all flesh foods and eggs, is to be completely avoided. A sattvic diet consists of fresh, simple foods including: grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and dairy. Sattvic foods are said to promote mental clarity, relaxation, meditation, and spiritual experience including inner visions. A rajasic diet includes very rich, spicy food, and a tamasic diet includes meat and alcohol. These are said to stimulate passions, promote mental agitation, and have an adverse effect upon concentration in meditation.

Those who take up the practices concerning the lower centres in the body, do take meat … but those who are anxious to rise above body consciousness and go into the Beyond have of necessity to eschew all that. This is the Path I have put before you. Liberation or salvation is something which starts only when you rise above body consciousness. For that reason, vegetarianism is the first essential.

(Kirpal Singh, The Night is a Jungle, published by Sant Bani Ashram of New Hampshire).

Guru Kabir, a great Master from Northern India, loved by Sufis, Sikhs, Jains, and Hindus alike, said:

The man who eats meat is a demon in human form. Keep away from him – his company will ruin your meditation.

(Kabir: the Weaver of God’s Name, Radha Soami Satsang Beas).

According to these teachers, the bad karma and other negative effects of flesh-eating apparently to some degree darkens one’s inner vision, interfering with the quality of one’s meditation, making it more difficult to reach the required deep levels of tranquility, clarity and concentration.

The concept of diet affecting spiritual awareness is not confined to Eastern mystics.

Many early Christians were vegetarian; also Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. In some early church writings, Matthew, Peter and James (brother of Jesus and first leader of the Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Church) were said to be vegetarian. According to the historian Eusebius, the Apostle “Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh.” Many monasteries in ancient times practised vegetarianism and continue to do so.

clement of alexandriaClement of Alexandria wrote,

It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals.

Modern day Seventh Day Adventists, for example, advocate a vegetarian diet.

Most conventional world religions in the West condone flesh-eating, but many esoteric traditions which have practised various forms of mysticism, are consistent in their agreement about the need for contemplative mystics to abstain from the flesh. The list of Western vegetarian paths includes: the Pythagoreans, followers of the Hermetic philosophy of Egypt, the Sethians, Theraputae, Essenes, the original Jewish Christians called Ebionites, the Gnostic religions, Manichaeans, some Catholic monasteries, some monasteries associated with the Orthodox Church – including the great mystery school on Mount Athos in Greece – and the Sufi mystics of Islam.

It may be no coincidence that the predominantly plant-based diet of Daniel and spiritual masters of many traditions, is virtually identical to that advocated by modern science. A diet which is believed to enhance spiritual openness also protects against cancer, heart-disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, arthritis and the general ravages of aging.

Pope Francis’s simple diet may not only have helped to deepen his spiritual practice but also given him the physical strength to take on this monumental role at the age of 76. May he prove to be as wise, knowledgeable and visionary as Daniel.

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Guest Blog – Nutrition and Cancer

Today my Guest Blogger is Jillian McKee, who has worked as the Complementary Medicine Advocate at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance since June 2009.  Bringing a wealth of personal and professional experience to the organization, Jillian spends most her time on outreach efforts and spreading information about the integration of complementary and alternative medicine when used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatment.

Jillian’s article is about the benefits of eating healthy during and after a diagnosis of any kind of cancer.

Why Cancer and Nutrition Go Hand-in-Hand

If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, you are more than likely very distraught and aggravated.  Receiving this type of diagnosis is one of the most difficult things that anyone can hear from their doctor.  Thankfully, there is a way to improve your well-being while undergoing cancer treatment.  The best way to improve your life during this time is to incorporate proper nutrition into your daily routine.  A healthy diet has a number of benefits that you may not even be aware of.  Proper nutrition can improve the well-being of individuals who are both sick and healthy, so it is a good idea to make some changes as soon as possible.

Many people may claim that the right diet can actually be a cure for cancer.  While thousands believe this to be true, it is more important to realize that proper nutrition will help you on your journey to wellness while undergoing routine cancer treatments.  Cancer treatments, such as those that accompany mesothelioma, will leave you feeling sick and drained.  The right diet will help to get you on your feet by boosting your energy levels throughout the day.  You may even be surprised to see how much energy you have after incorporating the right meal plan into your life.

Another benefit of a high quality diet that many people do not know is that it improves daily functions.  Good foods, like fruits and veggies, are literally packed with vitamins and essential minerals.  These vitamins are what your body needs to heal itself and support these functions.  You may notice that the right diet puts you in a better mood and gives you a sense of peace that no processed food could ever do.  Natural and wholesome foods can be added to your diet so that you are getting the recommended calories and vitamins for that particular day.

Before making changes to your current diet, you should make an appointment with your doctor to discuss these things.  While it is easy to make quick changes to a diet plan, your doctor will be able to advise you on different things that you need to avoid or get more of for that day’s consumption.  For example, most cancer patients need to have a high amount of calories each day to prevent excessive weight loss.  Only your doctor will be able to tell you how many calories is enough to support your daily functions on a regular basis.

The best thing to remember about nutrition for mesothelioma and other forms of cancer is that good foods can help you on this journey that you are taking.  Proper nutrition will help to improve energy levels, give you a sense of well-being, and help you to heal after treatments faster than living on a diet of processed junk food.  If you feel that a proper diet is the best thing for you at this point, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor to see what they can recommend and advise you on when it comes to making these types of changes.

For more information about the link between nutrition and health please visit Cooking for Health.

Nutrition – a game changer in global healthcare

Fierce political debate rages on both sides of the Atlantic about the rising cost of healthcare and what should be done about it.

Spending on health services in the UK has more than doubled in cash terms in the last decade, growing from £53 billion in 2000-01 to £120 billion in 2010-11; this is equivalent to an increase of around 80 per cent in real terms (1).  In England, 22 per cent of total public spending is devoted to healthcare.

In the USA, more than $2.5 trillion is spent annually on medical care.  But as recently as 1950, Americans spent only about $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars).  After adjusting for inflation, Americans now spend as much on health care every ten days as they did in the entire year of 1950 (2).  In the USA, medical spending now represents nearly 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The cost of health insurance continues to climb for US companies and workers, with annual family premiums growing at a pace triple that of 2010 and outpacing wage increases (3). The chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is quoted as saying that his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee (4).

New legislation, large-scale reorganisation of health services, changes in insurance schemes and budget cuts are all among the radical measures being taken by governments to address this issue.

There is much less press coverage though about the real game changer with respect to reducing healthcare costs – improving nutrition and lifestyle.

Chronic or non-communicable diseases are the top cause of death worldwide, killing more than 36 million people in 2008.  Cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 48 per cent of these deaths, cancers 21 per cent, chronic respiratory diseases 12 per cent, and diabetes 3 per cent (5).

In most middle- and high-income countries non-communicable diseases were responsible for more deaths than all other causes of death combined, with almost all high-income countries reporting more than 70 per cent of total deaths due to non-communicable diseases (6).

In the UK and the USA, non-communicable diseases account for over 80 per cent of all deaths (5).

Common, preventable risk factors underlie most of these non-communicable diseases.  These risk factors are a leading cause of the death and disability burden in nearly all countries, regardless of economic development.

The leading risk factor globally for mortality is raised blood pressure (responsible for 13 per cent of deaths globally), followed by tobacco use (9 per cent), raised blood glucose (6 per cent), physical inactivity (6 per cent), and overweight and obesity (5 per cent) (7).

If we were to stop overeating, stop eating unhealthy foods, stop smoking and stop living sedentary lives, these risk factors would reduce, the prevalence of these diseases would reduce, healthcare costs would reduce and we would enjoy a greater quality of life.

Simple changes to diet and lifestyle really can make a dramatic difference to your health and well-being (8).

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Works Cited

1. National Audit Office. Healthcare across the UK: A comparison of the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. s.l. : National Audit Office, 2012.

2. Robbins, John and Robbins, Ocean. Beyond the Obamacare debate – why does healthcare cost so much? . s.l. : Fox News, 2012.

3. US Health Insurance Costs Rise. [Online] 27 September 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/27/us-health-insurance-costs-climb.

4. Businessweek. [Online] 21 November 2004. http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2004-11-21/online-extra-a-full-bodied-talk-with-mr-dot-starbucks.

5. World Health Organisation. Non-communicable diseases country profiles 2011.

6. —. Global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2010. . Geneva : s.n., 2011.

7. —. Global health risks: mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks. . Geneva : s.n., 2009.

8. Willett, W.C. Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. New York : Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0 684 86337 5.

9. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Health Behaviour. Postnote, May 2007, no. 283. 2007.

Healthy Food Healthy Business

Eating out is no longer an occasional luxury.  Consumers in the UK spent a staggering £81 billion on catering services in 2008 (1) and sales on food eaten out have increased by 23 percent since 2003 (2).  Market surveys estimate that between 7.5 and 8.5 billion meals were eaten out in the UK in 2009 (3).  DEFRA statistics suggest that one in every six meals in the UK is eaten out and the catering industry provides at least three meals per week for the average person in Britain (1).  Approximately 20 to 30 percent of each household’s food budget is spent on food and drink consumed outside the home (1). 

So what are the most important factors driving consumer food choices in the eating out market?

Recent surveys by the Food Standards Agency (4) and leading market research organizations (3), as well as sales data from supermarkets (5), indicate that health consciousness has moved right to the top of the consumer agenda. There is growing evidence that consumers are beginning to give health similar priority to price and value for money when deciding what to eat. 

Worldwide, more than 60 percent of deaths are caused by chronic diseases (6), thus almost everyone knows someone who has suffered from cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  Public awareness of the key role played by diet in the development of many of these diseases is increasing.  People are therefore concerned about the amount of calories, salt, saturated fat and sugar they are consuming.  As eating out becomes more common, the nutritional quality of the eating out diet is starting to receive scrutiny.

Latest figures show that 11 percent of total energy intake comes from eating out (1).  This number would be substantially higher if alcohol consumption were included.  The eating out diet has more fat and less carbohydrate than the household diet. 

Several consumer surveys conducted in the UK and the USA between 2006 and 2009 point to a growing demand for healthier menu items and a frustration at this need not being met (3) (7) (8) (9).  In one UK survey conducted by Consumer Focus (10), 94 percent of respondents indicated a desire for increased availability of healthier food when eating out.  At the same time, Datamonitor reported that 35 percent of European consumers cannot find healthier menu items when dining out (8).  On top of this, consumers are beginning to request more information about the provenance of their food and its nutritional content (11). 

Supermarkets have already reacted to this trend and implemented front of pack ‘traffic light labelling’ to provide consumers with information on the content of major nutrients and on whether the item is relatively healthy (green) or unhealthy (amber or red).  In 2009, Sainsbury’s reported a dramatic shift in purchasing patterns as a consequence of introducing such labels.  Sales of healthier items increased by 40 to 97 percent, whilst those of less healthy items decreased by 30 to 40 percent (5).

The National Restaurant Association reported that 60 percent of US consumers are aware of calorie information when making menu choices and 25 percent use this information to influence their choices (12).  A study published by Stanford University in January 2010 looked at the impact of mandatory calorie labelling in Starbucks in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.  They found that calorie posting led to a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction.  This was entirely related to food choices and did not affect beverage consumption.  Interestingly, in Starbucks outlets within 50m of a competitor, the calorie posting led to an increase in Starbucks’ revenue (13).

In the UK, the FSA started working with 18 large catering businesses in 2009 to provide voluntary labelling of calorie content of menu items; the outcome of this is still being evaluated.

So the evidence suggests that today’s eating out consumers are cost-conscious, health-conscious and ethically-conscious.  The successful catering business will capitalise on these trends and create value by delivering what the consumer wants.

The good news is that making small and simple changes to menus to reduce content of calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar can enhance both health and profit margins.  Training courses are available to provide information and practical suggestions about how this can be achieved (14).

For example, there is plenty of scope to reduce portion size and reduce costs and food wastage.  The latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey published in February 2010 shows that average intake of protein is almost double that of the guideline intake (15).  Protein content of dishes can thus be reduced, thereby reducing cost.  Likewise, a number of businesses have reported increased margins as a result of reducing fat content of their menu items.

As life expectancy of the burgeoning world population continues to rise along with the incidence of overweight and obesity, the number of people with chronic diseases will increase.  There is also an increase in the number of the “worried well”.  Health consciousness is likely to intensify and caterers who provide healthier menu choices will position themselves to generate healthier businesses.

For further information and practical suggestions for providing healthier menu items, please come to a Healthier Catering Training Course in the UK.  Suitable for caterers and for professionals involved in encouraging healthy eating in the population.

Works Cited

1. DEFRA. Food Statistics Pocketbook. 2009.

2. Mintel. Eating Out Review. 2009.

3. Allegra Strategies. Review. 2009.

4. Food Standards Agency. Quarterly Public Attitudes Tracker. December 2009.

5. Sainsbury’s. Effect of food labelling on food purchasing choices. 2009.

6. World Health Organisation. World Health Report. 2002.

7. Nestle Professional. 2010.

8. Datamonitor. Workplace consumption: targeting a captive audience. 2005.

9. Aramark (NYSE, RMK) Dining Styles. Research presented to clinical researchers and health professionals at the 2006 NAASO Obesity Summit in Boston October 22-24. 2006.

10. Consumer Focus. s.l. : http://www.consumerfocus.org, 2006.

11. Food Standards Agency. June 2008.

12. National Restaurant Association. 2008.

13. Bollinger, B., Leslie, P. and Sorenson, A. Calorie posting in chain restaurants. s.l. : Stanford University, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/StarbucksCaloriePostingStudy.pdf, January 2010.

14. Philpott, J.K. Healthier Catering Training Courses. s.l. : http://www.cookingforhealth-uk.com/healthier-catering.php.

15. Food Standards Agency and Department of Health. National Diet and Nutrition Survey. Headline results from Year 1 of the Rolling Programme 2008-2009. s.l. : FSA and DoH, February 2010.

Why mothers don’t breastfeed

Breastfeeding rates in the UK are much lower than in many European countries. Less than 1 per cent of mothers in the UK are exclusively breastfeeding at six months. 

breastfeedingpublic

A focus group study in the UK suggested a number of reasons why women may not breastfeed or why they stop breastfeeding early. These were as follows: 

  • The attitude of other people – women felt that breastfeeding in public was unacceptable and embarrassing, while bottle-feeding was accepted by everybody and in all places. A lack of places to breastfeed out of sight restricted women’s ability to get out of the house. This may be a bigger issue for low-income women, who may not have the option of breastfeeding in the car. Some women reported breastfeeding in public toilets as the only option. Women wished that cafés and shops could provide places to breastfeed with some privacy.
  • Attitudes of family and friends – some women said that even family and friends found it ‘repulsive’ to be in the same room when they were breastfeeding. Some grandparents thought it excluded them from having the chance to feed the new baby. It was clear that the opinion of family and friends was a stronger influence than that of health practitioners. 
  • Lack of knowledge – women vaguely knew that breastfeeding was supposed to be beneficial, but they could not name any benefits, and were not convinced about them. In the study only one woman had learnt at school about benefits of breastfeeding; most did not hear about it until they were pregnant. Feeding was not well covered in antenatal classes. 
  • Lack of professional support – women experienced difficulty in trying to establish breastfeeding but were unwilling ‘to bother the midwife’. Bottle feeding seemed easier. 
  • Experience – breastfeeding seemed difficult and painful, and many women experienced problems ranging from getting the baby latched on, sore nipples, and disturbed sleep. Women, especially adolescents, complained of a lack of freedom to travel/socialise/work. 
  • Worry about baby’s weight gain – women said that health visitors were ‘always worried about weight gain’.

Although some women in this study mentioned the benefits of breastfeeding – including feelings of wellbeing and relaxation during feeds, convenience (less washing up), and less expense, it is clear that there are significant barriers for women in the UK which impact on their choice to breastfeed. 

Source: McFadden A & Toole G (2006) Exploring women’s views of breastfeeding: a focus group study within an area with high levels of socio-economic deprivation. Maternal & Child Nutrition 2: 156-68.

For further information about healthy food for babies and children, please come to a Cooking for Health course led by nutrition expert, Dr Jane Philpott.