Natural strategies for prevention
Heidi Fritz, MA, ND
Eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy body weight, and having adequate levels of vitamin D are excellent natural strategies for preventing breast cancer.
According to Statistics Canada, breast cancer affects nearly 127 in 100,000 women. While advances in conventional cancer management have improved treatment outcomes for those diagnosed, prevention remains the best way to reduce disease burden. However, women can decrease their risk through diet and lifestyle strategies as well as select nutritional agents.
A balanced diet
A diet high in fibre, fruits, and vegetables, and low in saturated fat may reduce cancer risk. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study included more than half a million European women; in the recently published Italian arm, involving 31,000 women, increased vegetable consumption was associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.
In women who are survivors of breast cancer, higher intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with a reduced recurrence in a recent study, especially in women who were taking tamoxifen.
A healthy body weight
Maintaining a healthy body weight is also helpful in breast cancer prevention. Fat tissue has been shown to produce inflammation and excess estrogen production. A healthy weight and regular exercise reduce hormones that are thought to promote cancer, and in a recent study, women who achieved healthy weight loss had lower levels of estrogen and markers of inflammation present in their breast tissue.
In one study looking at breast cancer survivors, called the Women’s Healthy Eating and Living Study, those women who exercised the equivalent of at least 60 minutes of brisk walking, five days per week, experienced a 53 percent reduction in risk of death compared to those who exercised the least.
Recent research has linked vitamin D levels with breast cancer risk. One study found that those with the highest plasma vitamin D levels had a reduced risk of breast cancer, compared to those with the lowest levels. Speak with your health care practitioner to find out if your vitamin D levels are low, and whether supplementation is right for you.
Melatonin is an important regulator of estrogen in the body and is thought to protect against breast cancer. Exposure to light at night blunts melatonin secretion; therefore, night shift workers such as nurses are known to be at increased risk of breast cancer. Melatonin also regulates “clock genes.” These genes are circadian rhythm-dependent and have a role in controlling natural cell death, a process that suppresses cancer development.
Supplementation with melatonin may be a way that this risk can be offset, although this has yet to be confirmed in humans. Your health care practitioner can help determine if melatonin supplements are right for you.