Nutrition in the age of insulin resistance, autoimmune disease and cancer

Posted on January 20, 2020 by in Uncategorized
 | Oak Street Medical

Having recently struggled with breast cancer and treatment over the past year, one of my patients gave me a gift—a book titled, “Tripping Over the Truth” by Travis Christofferson, which many of my patients have heard me go on and on about.

How sugar feeds cancer
The book discusses the metabolic theory of cancer, and it boils down to the fact that sugar—glucose and carbohydrates (which break down into glucose)—is a BAD PLAYER when it comes to this disease. All, or rather almost all, cancer cells utilize glucose for metabolism through the anaerobic pathways, which yield lactic acid as a by-product. While our normal cells only go to anaerobic metabolism, when we are sprinting or exerting ourselves in some other form of heavy physical activity, cancer cells use the anaerobic pathway as a rule, whether there is oxygen or not (Warburg Effect). Cancer cells thrive on glucose—in fact, this is the basis for PET scanning, which uses this fact to detect cancer.

How sugar leads to diabetes
Insulin resistance is what happens when we gain weight, don’t exercise, take steroids and eat sugar and carbohydrates. Insulin is produced by the pancreas, and its job is to facilitate the use of glucose by the cells. There are insulin receptors on cells and when these are not working, it is called insulin resistance. Sugar is present in the bloodstream, but the cell is unable to use it and is starving. So, the pancreas puts out more insulin and after doing this for some time, it begins to fail; that is when you become diabetic. Insulin resistance also causes endothelial dysfunction, which means the artery walls become stiff and sticky.

Damage occurs when you have four concurrent conditions:

1.    Bad cholesterol (LDL)
2.    Endothelial dysfunction (stiff, sticky artery walls)
3.    Inflammatory response
4.    Clot

These four conditions form the basis of atherosclerosis, which is the formation of cholesterol plaques within artery walls that causes obstruction of blood vessels and subsequent organ damage, such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney failure.

When you are insulin resistant, you deposit fat in your liver and other internal organs (think beer belly), become hypertensive (stiff arteries), have elevated lipids including bad cholesterol and triglycerides, stress out your pancreas (type 2 diabetes) and develop atherosclerosis. We call this the ‘metabolic syndrome’.

Autoimmune disease is basically when you become allergic to your own body. Your body attacks its nerves’ myelin sheath (multiple sclerosis), your joints (rheumatoid arthritis), your skin (psoriasis), your intestines (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis), your pancreas (type 1 diabetes), your thyroid (Graves’ disease), everything (systemic lupus erythematosus) and many more diseases.

How sugar affects inflammation
Sometimes, the triggers are external, such as certain foods, which are linked to celiac disease or wheat allergy, or there is a genetic component. Without getting too detailed, the inflammatory component is modulated by sugar. There is a book about multiple sclerosis being treated by diet, called The Wahls Protocol, where carbohydrates are limited to low-glycemic fruits and vegetables.

Adopting a low-sugar, high-protein diet
There is much evidence to suggest that glucose or sugar is a promoter of cancer, the metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis and autoimmune disease. That is why I have been recommending to patients that they incorporate a diet that is low in carbs and sugar and high in protein and good fats like olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil. This usually means gluten-free, but I often recommend using organic products and eliminating soy and dairy.

Hopefully this will motivate some of you who have not been very excited about this way of eating. It is difficult to be perfect with food regimen, but I believe every bit of effort counts. Feel free to contact me your questions or comments.