Disease doesn’t just happen. Outside of genetic issues, most of the illnesses we suffer in middle age and beyond are the cumulative result of choices we made earlier in life. Whatever is introduced to the body upstream in our youth, whether it’s a surgery, drug habits, smoking, sports injuries or something else, will intrude upon and change the functional terrain of the body with its effects being felt downstream later in life. This can certainly be the case with cancer because there are several ways we’re unconsciously increasing our risk today for a diagnosis later on. Fortunately, we reduce this risk by making some simple changes.
Probably the most common way we’re altering the terrain of our bodies and exposing ourselves to disease downstream is by taking too many unnecessary antibiotics. Because antibiotics were designed to kill any and all microbes, they can’t distinguish between the good bacteria in our intestinal tract that form the larger part of our immune system, and the bad bacteria that make us sick. As antibiotics wipe out pathogenic bacteria, they also destroy millions of colonies of our beneficial bacteria. Over time this significantly reduces our immunity, making us more vulnerable to everything from colds to cancer.
I’ve had patients who’d been on antibiotics every other month for years until they ended up with Crohn’s disease or colon cancer. Their stool samples showed hardly any good bacteria at all. Their guts were nearly sterile.
A six-year study in Finland of people with no cancer history found that risk for prostate, breast, lung, endocrine, and colon cancer increased with antibiotic use. Those that took 0-1 antibiotic prescriptions during that period experienced no risk increase. Those with 2-5 saw a 27% increase, while more than 6 prescriptions during the time period resulted in a 37% increase in cancer risk. The participants with more than 6 prescriptions were also 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with less common cancers, such as non-melanoma skin, duodenum, pancreas, kidney, bladder, male genitals and thyroid cancers, as well as myeloma and leukemia.
A study by the National Cancer Institute that followed 10,000 women over 17 years found that those who took antibiotics for more than 500 cumulative days (greater than 25 prescriptions) doubled their risk for breast cancer. More surprising, women who took anywhere between 1 and 25 prescriptions saw their risk for breast cancer increase an average of 1.5 times over those who took none.
Research shows that the risk of breast cancer increases more than 70% for premenopausal women (under age 50) who have taken multiple rounds of antibiotics for urinary tract infections in the past. After follow up of more than ten years, the breast cancer risk for women in the study had nearly doubled. In the past, acne was another popular reason antibiotics were prescribed. Now, research shows that men who took the antibiotic tetracycline for four or more years for their acne had a significantly higher rate of prostate cancer later in life.
Antibiotics are necessary when illness is serious or life-threatening, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Ask your doctor if there is another treatment option.
Build up your own immunity by eliminating foods pathogenic bacteria love like processed foods and sugar. Minimize grains because proteins like lectin and gluten can damage the intestinal lining. Eat fermented foods like kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut to boost your gut population of good bacteria. Better immunity means you won’t need an antibiotic in the first place.
Nothing to Sneeze At
Another way we increase our risk for cancer later in life is through the overuse of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Just because these items are available without a prescription doesn’t mean they’re harmless, even at recommended doses. Hardly anyone reads the inserts or side effects information of these products. One of the biggest offenders is antihistamines, which people take in large volumes and for long periods of time during allergy seasons.
Histamine has many important roles in the body including as an immune system modulator. When an allergen enters the body, histamine is secreted which triggers an inflammatory response to call white blood cells to the area to eradicate the invader. It’s histamine that causes all those miserable symptoms, but it’s also the signal to activate the immune system.
Antihistamines work by attaching to H1 receptors on cells, preventing the body from producing its own histamine. In essence, it turns off the immune system alarm, not just to the allergen, but to other invaders in the body, as well. Research has shown mice that were unable to produce or lacked histamine had an increase in the susceptibility to colon and skin cancers, as well as increased frequency in tumor formation. Links have also been discovered between long-term antihistamine use and certain brain tumors.
A carcinogenic compound known as DPPE also latches onto H1 receptors, causing malignant cells to grow faster. It also has a chemical composition similar to antihistamines. So, it wasn’t surprising that when mice with cancer received regular doses of antihistamines their tumor growth increased significantly. The same research team also found the same cancer acceleration effects with antidepressants. The researchers stated:
“We believe it possible that chronic consumption of many prescription and nonprescription drugs with tumor-growth-promoting properties may represent a previously unrecognized, and therefore insidious, environmental risk factor for cancer growth.”
So while antihistamines don’t technically cause cancer, they do mute the signaling of the immune system, which is fighting off invaders, including cancer cells, in our bodies every day. They’ve also been shown to accelerate the growth of cancer, regardless of whether it’s known or undetected in the body.
Instead of automatically reaching for antihistamines through cold and allergy seasons, consider some natural remedies that don’t alter the terrain of the body. A teaspoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in a glass of water three times a day can help reduce mucus production and cleanse the lymphatic system. Consider using a Neti pot with a homemade saline rinse to clear out the nasal passages and get yourself breathing again. While there hasn’t been a lot of research on it, there is impressive anecdotal evidence that consuming raw local honey from a beekeeper or farmer where you live can work like a natural “allergy shot” and help your body adapt to the pollen from the plants and flowers in your geographical location.
We also unknowingly change the terrain of our bodies and expose ourselves to cancer risk by flying. The earth’s atmosphere protects us from cosmic radiation of gamma rays and X-rays, as well as electromagnetic radiation from the sun. As altitude increases, the atmosphere gets progressively thinner, providing less protection. The atmosphere is also thickest at the equator and thins out as it moves toward the poles. So the major factors in radiation exposure when flying are frequency of flight, duration of the flight, altitude, and latitude. Radiation exposure occurs on all flights, but the greatest comes from international routes. At cruising altitudes of 39,000 feet there is virtually no protection from radiation since the plane’s fuselage doesn’t act as a barrier.
Radiation is a concern because it generates an immense amount of free radicals that damage the body at the cellular level, including DNA. This can set the stage for cellular mutation and cancer development.
Research from the Department of Air Safety, Health & Security found that when compared to the general public of the same age and sex, flight attendants had a 30% higher rate of breast cancer and a melanoma rate that was double. The same report cited a study from eight European countries that found a slight increase in breast cancer among female cabin crew and an elevated skin cancer death rate among the males. Researchers from Iceland showed a significant increase in breast cancer risk for female flight attendants who worked five years or more. This is interesting because Iceland is on the edge of the Arctic at a very high latitude. Finally, a Swedish study found increased melanoma in both male and female cabin crew. Similar statistics can be found for airline pilots who have a melanoma rate 10 times greater than the public, 15 times higher if they’re flying internationally and 25 times higher if their flights pass through five or more time zones.
The best thing to mitigate radiation exposure in flight is to fly at night when 99% of the sun’s radiation is blocked by the earth. If you can sleep on a plane, definitely go for the red eye flights. Astaxanthin is an antioxidant that’s 64 times more powerful than vitamin C and is excellent at absorbing UVB rays and neutralizing free radicals before they do their damage. Take 4mg per day, but it must be started three weeks before the flight. Eat a diet high in antioxidants leading up to departure, that means lots of leafy greens, vegetables, berries, and high quality saturated fats from organic red meat and real butter, for vitamins E and D.
The most powerful of all antioxidants is glutathione. While it’s made by the body, everything from poor diet, stress, medications, toxins, aging and yes, radiation can deplete our levels. Glutathione deficiency is found in nearly all seriously ill patients. You can boost your glutathione production by eating sulfur rich foods like cabbage, broccoli, kale and cauliflower, exercising regularly, taking a vitamin B complex and supplementing with the herb Milk Thistle.
Functional Medicine Fingerprint
When we understand the importance of preserving or restoring the terrain of the body, we can make choices today that support our health long into the future. With this knowledge, we can also find the real cause of illness much sooner and support our bodies with effective treatments rather than getting lost in years of symptom management. Like a fingerprint, understanding our functional terrain provides the clues to creating real personalized treatment that patients respond to, not just by alleviating the symptoms of today, but preventing the diseases of tomorrow, as well.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.