Cancer: unfortunately, it's as common as it is potentially life-changing. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
Why so prevalent? Well, we know that various environmental and lifestyle factors can increase our risk for this major health condition—things like smoking, not getting enough sleep, eating too much sugar, being too overweight, getting too much UV radiation, and so on. We also know that certain genetic factors can predispose us to cancer, too, and that anyone who experiences this condition (perhaps you or a loved one?) is dealing with a nuanced and unique set of issues which led to their diagnosis...and not all of it within their control.
The good news is that a lot of what increases our risk for cancer is within our control, if only we were taught how.
In this post, I'd like to talk about what lies at the deep tangled root of cancer, something which a lot of us aren't super aware of:
Understanding what DNA damage is, how it occurs, and why it initiates the cancer process will not only help us understand our healths more fully, but it'll also help us really make sense about why certain lifestyle choices can reduce the chances of us or someone we love falling ill.
How Damaged DNA Leads to Cancer
Quick biology primer:
Every cell in your body contains your DNA. DNA is like your personal blueprint—a specific sequence of genes that codes for a variety of proteins and ultimately controls what, how, and when certain things function in your body.
Now, cells make copies of themselves in order to grow. This is a normal and healthy process, usually. But if a cell's DNA becomes damaged by any number of physical or chemical carcinogens (we already talked about many: toxins, UV radiation, and so on), then this damage can eventually lead to a copying error somewhere down the line of cell replication.
Why does this matter? Because copying errors—which may occur during cell replication trillions of times over the course of a lifetime—can sometimes lead to a gene mutation that causes cancer. And once any kind of gene mutation occurs, there's no turning back. It's permanent. This is why taking steps to repair DNA damage ASAP is essential.
An analogy would be following a recipe to bake a cake but the cookbook company printed an error in how much baking soda you should put in. This changes the way your cake comes out, and maybe not in a good way.
Do ALL gene mutations caused by DNA damage lead to cancer? No. But some do, and since cell and DNA replication is occurring at a near constant rate in your body, eventually we would expect some sort of harmful mutation to occur...at least if the damaged DNA which triggered the gene mutation is left unrepaired.
By the way, at least some degree of DNA damage is virtually unavoidable in all of us. That is to say, even normal metabolism causes it. That's right, just the day-to-day processes that keep you alive can damage your DNA to some extent. In fact, it's been estimated that some kind of DNA damage occurs in your body up to 800 times per hour.
So it's not a question of whether you have DNA damage in your body, but what you're doing to fix it!
How Your Body Repairs its DNA
I'm not trying to scare you when I say that DNA damage is unavoidable to at least some degree. And hey, rest assured that your body has a pretty clever way of doing damage control on its own.
For instance, your body creates and uses a variety of enzymes to repair damage done to cells and mitochondria (the part of the cell that provides energy to function). These enzymes are your cells' little clean-up crews, of you will. Additionally, cells have certain genes that can detect when its DNA has become damaged past the state of repair. These genes are aptly named tumor suppressor genes, which basically means they prevent cancer cell growth (because, as you'll recall, cancer comes from genetic mutations caused by damaged DNA).
How do tumor suppressor genes work? By triggering the cell (and the hopelessly damaged DNA it contains) to die in a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death.
You're reading that right: cells will essentially self-sacrifice if a part of their genetic code identifies them as being at risk for turning to the dark side (cancerous). That's a pretty badass defense mechanism, if you ask me.
Now here's the important connection to make: DNA repair enzymes require certain vitamins and minerals to work properly. If they don't get enough of these nutrients, DNA damage can persist and genetic mutations can occur—including mutations in the tumor suppressor genes themselves! This can now render the gene incapable of detecting and responding to DNA damage and thereby lead to cancer, sometimes very quickly.
Mitigating DNA Damage and Slashing Cancer Risk—One Serving of Greens at a Time
If there's just one thing that you remember from this post, I hope it's this:
The spark that ignites the flame of cancer is DNA damage, and your diet is the number one way to snuff out that spark.
To make sure we're all pointed in the right direction, I'd like to highlight a couple key nutrients that you want in your daily diet in order to mitigate DNA damage effectively.
Did you realize that nearly 60% of the United States population is deficient in magnesium? This mineral plays several important roles in your body, including regulation of blood pressure, assisting with muscle activation, improving bone health, and (ding ding ding) supporting DNA repair enzymes as they do their thang.
If you want healthy DNA (and if you want to retain the ability to repair DNA when it inevitably becomes damaged), you NEED to be getting enough magnesium in your body (at least 150 to 350 mg per day). Magnesium is rich in foods like spinach, kale, and collard greens, as well as nuts like Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, and pine nuts.
As a reference point, one cup of raw spinach has about 24 mg of magnesium. 1 cup of kale has just over 30 mg. Chow down, people! Eat these things erry day to maximize your chances for optimal health.
Sulfurophane and Isothiocynates
Two other compounds that are hugely important for supporting DNA are sulfurophane and isothiocynates. These are found in cruciferous veggies like broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, garden cress, and bok choy.
Sulfurophane and isothiocynates increase the expression of tumor suppressor genes, making them work better. These cruciferous compounds can also detect and destroy pre-cancerous cells, too.
These aren't the only compounds in green veggies that can be cancer-preventive, of course. Antioxidants, vitamins, and other phytonutrients including carotenoids and Vitamin C also support our body's detoxification, gene expression, and DNA repair. There really is just no question as to why study after study has shown a strong correlation between diets that are rich in fruits and veggies and a lowered cancer incidence.
The main thing to know is this:
If you want to maximize your body's ability to repair DNA damage and fight off cancer, you need to eat leafy green veggies and cruciferous veggies, every day.
Every. Single. Day. I'm talking 5-7+ servings of veggies (plus a couple handfuls of healthy nuts, while you're at it). Broccoli sprouts in particular are LOADED with cancer-fighting sulfurophane and isothiocynates and also happen to have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. Scientist Dr. Rhonda Patrick and others recommend a daily intake of about 100 grams (1/2 cup) of broccoli sprouts per day, based on current research.
Of course, nobody can completely eliminate their risk for cancer, but everybody can take steps to reduce it for themselves and their families. And the research is very clear about one thing:
Diet is the MOST important controllable factor for preventing cancer, namely by supporting DNA repair processes that would otherwise lead to it.
It's a bit random as to what kind of DNA damage occurs inside our cells. And it can take decades for gene mutations to occur (which helps explain why cancer is largely age-related). When we add in the compounding effects of UV radiation, smoking, poor sleep, and poor diet, it makes sense that 1 out of 3 people will have to deal with cancer eventually.
But I'd like to change that tide. I hope that the research in this post has helped open your eyes (as it has for me) to exactly HOW all those veggies you're eating is benefitting your health. It's my belief that that more we know about the incredible inner workings of our bodies, the more inspired we'll be to support it through our own choices.
Want to learn even more? I dive deeper into this subject, how to lessen your or your children's chance of cancer, the new research on diet while treating/fighting cancer and the research that goes alone with it in my most recent podcast episode. You can check it out here
To order magnesium or other high quality trusted supplements you can do so from my online supplement shop here.