October is breast cancer awareness month. Almost all of us know at least one person who has been on a breast cancer journey. Treatments and survival rates have improved over the years. But our goal is to prevent it in the first place, and certainly to prevent its recurrence.
90-95% of all cancer cases are due to environmental and lifestyle factors, while only 5-10% are due to genetic defects. With breast cancer, certain factors are out of our control. For example, a woman’s age and gender are the greatest risk factors for breast cancer. Inherited mutations to the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, which are associated with breast cancer, are also out of a woman’s control. However, there are many lifestyle choices that lower a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, stacking the odds in our favor.
About 80% of all breast cancers are “ER-positive.” That means that the cancer cells grow in response to the hormone estrogen. These cancers have a higher than usual number of receptors for estrogen. Because estrogen dominance is a contributor to ER positive cancers, many of these preventative recommendations center on keeping estrogen levels at normal levels in the body.
Even if you have certain risk factors that are out of your control, what can you do to prevent breast cancer? Prevention focuses on lifestyle, diet and environmental exposures.
Paying attention to these three lifestyle strategies significantly reduces your risk for breast cancer.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Maintaining a healthy body weight has many health benefits, including lowering your risk of breast cancer. Before menopause, most of a woman’s estrogen is made in her ovaries. Fat tissue only makes a small amount of her total estrogen. After menopause, the ovaries stop making estrogen and most of her estrogen is produced from fat tissue. Excess fat after menopause can raise estrogen levels, increasing the chance of breast cancer.
Being overweight is also often associated with higher insulin levels. Higher insulin levels are linked to increased risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer.
Be Physically Active
Exercise has many beneficial effects on the body, including lowering the risk of cancers. Exercise lowers levels of sex hormones, such as estrogen, and growth factors associated with breast cancer development and progression. It also lowers blood insulin levels, which is linked to certain cancers.
150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week is recommended. Be sure to work your way up to these levels if you currently aren’t exercising this much.
Avoid or Limit Alcohol
Studies suggest that no amount of alcohol is safe in preventing cancers. Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have 3 alcoholic drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer.
Alcohol affects levels of estrogen and progesterone. Alcohol slows down the breakdown of estrogen in the liver and increases the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. This can cause blood estrogen levels to rise. Estrogen levels are higher in women who drink alcohol than non-drinkers. This increases the risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can also damage DNA, increasing the risk of cancer.
If you choose to drink alcohol, limiting consumption to 3 drinks per week is recommended.
Eat a Cancer-Fighting Diet
Diet is one of the most important tools for reducing our risk of breast cancer. Eat a whole foods diet such as the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes vegetables, minimizes processed foods and added sugars, and is associated with overall good health and longevity. Adding in specific foods that bind free radicals and help the liver metabolize estrogens is an added step toward preventing breast cancer.
Eat a serving of cruciferous vegetables every day
Besides being full of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, cruciferous vegetables contain cancer-fighting compounds such as sulforaphane and indol-3-carbinol. These play a part in proper Phase 2 liver detoxification and in breaking down estrogen into healthy metabolites.
There are many cruciferous vegetables to choose from, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, rutabagas, arugula and watercress.
Use ground flaxseed in smoothies, salads and other dishes
Flax seeds contain lignans, which have a couple of benefits. Lignans bind to estrogen in the intestines. This prevents estrogen from being reabsorbed back into the bloodstream and ensures that it is eliminated through the bowels. This helps reduce excess levels of estrogen in the body.
Lignans also stimulate the production of Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) in the liver. This binds to estrogen, making excess amounts less able to bind to estrogen receptors.
Grind flax seed before using for full benefits. Whole seeds often pass through the digestive tract undigested. The oil in flax seeds is fragile in heat and light, so keep ground flax in the refrigerator or freezer.
Drink green tea
Green tea contains cancer-fighting polyphenols, which are chemicals that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants protect your cells and DNA from free radicals. Free radicals are chemically reactive molecules that cause damage to DNA and can lead to the development of cancer. Antioxidants in foods neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage.
Studies show that certain chemicals in green tea have potent cancer-fighting properties. They inhibit the division of cancer cells and limit the spread of cancer (metastasis) to the lungs and liver. Green tea may also help with apoptosis (programmed cell death) of breast cancer cells.
While there is no recommended amount of green tea to drink each day, adding a couple of cups a day is a good practice. EGCG, the potent antioxidant in green tea, is also available as a supplement.
Minimize Environmental Xenoestrogens
Xenoestrogens are found in synthetic and naturally occurring sources. They are called endocrine disruptors because they interfere with our normal hormones. Xenoestrogens mimic our own natural estrogens. They bind to estrogen receptors but exert a stronger estrogenic effect than our own natural estrogen. This causes symptoms of estrogen dominance and is believed to possibly contribute to the development of hormone-dependent cancers.
There are currently about 160 xenoestrogens that may be involved in breast cancer development. They are found in a wide variety of products that women commonly use, including personal care and cosmetic products. They are in our food, water, personal care products, cosmetics, cleaning products and plastics. These are absorbed through the digestive system, skin and lungs.
Choose organic foods when possible
Pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed on food crops contain xenoestrogens. When eaten on our foods, they disrupt the gut and introduce xenoestrogens into our system. Washing vegetables and fruits helps remove some of the pesticide residue, but there are many non-organic plant-based ingredients in processed foods and can’t be washed. Buying organic foods helps ensure that your food is as “clean” as possible when you eat it.
The cost of organic produce can be higher than conventional produce. The Environmental Working Group has investigated and published which vegetables and fruits retain the most pesticide residue (The Dirty Dozen) and which don’t (The Clean Fifteen) to guide your choices.
Use coconut oil as a moisturizer
Coconut oil is an effective light-weight natural moisturizer with many benefits for the skin. Fractionated coconut oil has had the lauric acid removed to make it fluid. This can be a healthy substitute for certain personal care products containing xenoestrogens.
Avoid plastic when possible
Plastics are everywhere in our world, from packaging, to food storage, to water bottles and more. All plastics contain xenoestrogens and leach microplastics. These microplastics and xenoestrogens are ingested and absorbed into our bodies. Heating the plastic increases this effect. Soft plastics leach more microplastics than hard plastics. How can you reduce your plastic load?
- Avoid plastic water bottles. We know they’re terrible for the environment anyway, but they’re also not good for us. Drink filtered water from a glass or stainless steel container throughout the day.
- Don’t heat or store foods in plastic containers. Invest in glass food storage jars and containers for your foods and leftovers. These are long-lasting and can be used to heat, refrigerate or freeze foods.
Remember, 90% of cancers are due to lifestyle factors. The good news is that there are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
At Radiance Functional Medicine, we believe that food is medicine. We hope that you will allow us to help you heal your gut, balance your hormones, or find a way of eating that helps you thrive! Schedule an appointment to get started. Whether you are looking for a Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Doctor in Denver or your local area, we see patients in person and virtually. Call our office at 303.333.1668 to schedule your Initial Nutrition Consultation.