Lately it seems that I’m working with more and more otherwise healthy women who are battling breast cancer at younger and younger ages. The purpose of this blog is to give some nutrition and lifestyle tips to aid the fight against breast cancer, but I have to start off by saying that if you are dealing with breast cancer it’s not your fault. It’s not because you did or didn’t do something: many of us don’t exercise, eat a terrible diet, live a stressful lifestyle and don’t get breast cancer. Of all cancers, breast cancer seems to be the most emotionally charged because it is so fundamentally wrong that the parts of us which help to make us visibly feminine and which may have nourished our infant children would now be capable of so much destruction. So – in my very humble opinion – the first thing you have to recognize is that a breast cancer diagnosis is not your fault, but that there are things that you can do to help turn your hormonal chemistry back to health.
There are many nutrients involved in the biochemistry of cancer, but the two supplements I would immediately start taking if I were battling breast cancer would be:
- Iodine. Iodine is a mineral that is concentrated in the thyroid, breasts, and ovaries. It is found in seaweed, fish, egg yolks (as long as the chicken lived in an iodine-rich area), and organ meats. Iodine deficiency is related to abnormal breast tissue growth (which is why many women with fibrocystic breasts find relief by increasing their iodine intake) and increased sensitivity to estrogen in breast tissue. On the surface this increased sensitivity may not seem like a big deal, but when you factor in the amount of estrogen that our bodies are bombarded with on a daily basis (see lifestyle tips below) you can start to get a picture of why breast cancer is on the rise. Signs that a person may have low levels of iodine include low body temperature (feeling cold when others are warm), fatigue, goiter, and slowed growth of body hair (meaning you have to pluck your eyebrows or shave your legs less often, but ladies please don’t intentionally deprive yourself of iodine just to save on your waxing bill :)!). Despite the addition of iodine to salt, many Americans still have low levels of iodine. In my opinion this is because of our rampant exposure to things that compete with iodine, namely chlorine, fluoride, and bromine. Nerd alert – if you look at the periodic table of elements you will see that these elements are in the same column as iodine which means they have similar properties and may compete in the human body. Chlorine can be found in tap water, pesticide residues, and as a breakdown product in Splenda (the artificial sweetener that “Tastes like sugar cause it’s made from sugar” or in my more accurate slogan which hasn’t been picked up by the manufacturers: “Tastes like sugar cause it’s made from poison”). Fluoride is found in fluoridated tap water, toothpaste, and is a breakdown product of industrial fertilizers. Bromine is found in some baked goods and in fire retardants (which is why my kids don’t sleep in pajamas treated with chemical fire retardants – bromine is linked to hyperactivity and with two already super active little boys, Lord knows we don’t need anything to increase their activity levels!). You can see how the exposure to these elements from multiple sources on a daily basis helps to squash the small amount of iodine the average American gets in their diet. A general dosage to restore iodine levels is around 25 mg of iodine (I like the forms in Iodoral brand the best) but if you plan to take iodine for any length of time it is best to have your levels evaluated with an iodine loading test, and of course consult with a qualified healthcare practitioner to make sure it doesn’t interfere with any medications you may be on.
- Sulforaphane Glucosinolate, abbreviated SGS. This dietary compound, found in cruciferous vegetables (ie broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts), works at the epigenetic level – meaning that regardless of whether you have the so-called “gene for cancer”, it works at a deeper level that tells your genes how to express themselves. Epigenetics is a huge and exciting area of research and I’m having a hard time not going on a 10-page rant about how it proves that we are not just victims of our genes so I will just save that for another blog! Johns Hopkins has done extensive research on Sulforaphane and its specific role in preventing cancerous growth in the breast as well as in prompting breast cancer cells to commit apoptosis, or programmed cell suicide. Broccoli sprouts are the richest dietary source of SGS and can be purchased at most health food stores or grown at home from broccoli seeds. If sprouts aren’t your thing, SGS is also available in supplement form. It’s important to note that SGS is not just for ladies – it has been found to prevent several forms of cancer and has similar anti-cancer effects in prostate cancer cells.
Lifestyle tips that may also help include:
- Avoid environmental estrogen like the plague that it is. Sources of environmental estrogen include plastic (especially any plastic with a smell, such as plastic shower liners – the smell means it’s off-gassing), new foam mattresses, hormones in meat and dairy products, pesticide residues on food, bis-phenol A found in plastic food storage containers and in the lining of canned foods, synthetic fragrances found in cosmetics and air fresheners (that’s right I’m talking about you, Glade Plug-ins), preservatives and sudsing agents in personal care products, chemicals and fragrances in commercial cleaning products, pharmaceutical and pesticide residues in tap water, adhesives in new carpet, fumes in paint, and dry cleaning chemicals. Now, before you banish yourself to your closet wearing a burlap sack and eating only air, realize that you can avoid most of the above by eating organic foods as much as possible, storing food and beverages in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic, drinking only filtered water, using natural cosmetics and personal care products, and being mindful of the chemical input of things in your home (i.e. choose a cloth shower curtain instead of plastic, look for VOC-free paint, consider a latex or wool mattress instead of foam).
- Go to bed at or before 10 PM and sleep in a totally dark room. This helps your brain to produce adequate amounts of melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep regulation that also has antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. The link between melatonin and breast cancer may partially explain why nurses and other night-shift workers have higher incidences of breast cancer than other populations.
- Take time to nurture yourself. Metaphysically speaking, the breasts are commonly linked to feelings of nurturing (or lack thereof). Figure out what this means for you – maybe it’s getting a massage, taking a hot bath, eating a meal you really enjoy, going on a trip, scheduling a few minutes of “me time” into your day, planting a garden, reading a book, allowing yourself the time to exercise, or simply taking a nap! Regardless of the treatment option you choose, taking the time to nurture yourself will help you on the road to healing. For more info on this, see the excellent book Feelings Buried Alive Never Die by Karol Truman that discusses the link between specific emotions and the particular diseases they are associated with and gives practical steps for creating health in the link between mind and body. For an overall look at emotions and women’s health, I recommend the book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, that is an amazing and practical read on learning to love our bodies – even when certain parts may be giving us a hard time.
One more thing that I would like to mention is that when choosing a treatment option, make sure you go with the option that is absolutely what you want to do. I know I personally tend to have a more holistic approach, but in talking with oncologists through the years the one theme that remains constant is that people have the best outcome when they are confident in their treatment choice. Whether you decide to go with chemotherapy, radiation, surgical options, natural options, experimental treatments, nutritional treatments, or no treatment make sure that you are doing it because you feel it’s the right choice for you. Every woman is different, every cancer is different, and finding the right treatment option for you – regardless of what your insurance company thinks – could be the key to getting you through this difficult step and on to the rest of your life. Things may seem bleak right now, but in lectures I have given nationwide with cancer survivors, the thing I hear most often from these amazing women is that cancer changed their life for the better because they realized how strong they really were. A cancer diagnosis was the catalyst that forced them to choose daily to replace fear and despair with love and celebration. My sincere wish is that it does the same for you!
October 31, 2012 4 Comments
I have received a lot of questions from friends and family here in Hawaii about nutritional ways to protect from exposure to radiation. These questions are prompted by the tragic events currently unfolding in Japan. My constant prayer and belief is that the situation will come back under control, but I still thought it would be wise to post this information for all of you out there for the sake of educational purposes and to help those of you who may be exposed to radiation at work or as part of cancer treatment. So, here’s what I know:
- The single most important nutrient when looking at protection from radioactive fallout is iodine, which is why almost every store here in Hawaii all the way to the west coast of the US is sold out of iodine supplements. Radioactive iodine is a by-product of uranium fission, and iodine is a necessary nutrient for the body which is taken up hungrily by the thyroid. If the body is low in iodine, it will absorb more than a fair share of radioactive iodine which is obviously very harmful and can lead to several types of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer. For more info on iodine for protection from nuclear fallout, check out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s article on the subject.
- If you are able to flood the body with real, non-radioactive iodine before possible exposure to radioactive iodine you will be less likely to absorb the radioactivity because the thyroid is less hungry. It’s basically the same principle as ruining your appetite for dinner by eating lots of snacks…except in this case dinner is radioactive.
- The dosages of iodine used by the NRC are either 65 mg or 130 mg once daily, which offers 24 hours of protection. These are very high doses intended for those living near a fallout zone. A daily intake of about 3 mg iodine for at least 2 weeks will saturate the thyroid while a dose of 10 to 15 mg should immediately saturate the thyroid. This is a moderately high dose but has been estimated to be the regular daily intake of a person in Japan (they eat a lot of seafood and seaweed – two of the richest sources of iodine), where rates of cancer are surprisingly low. To put this in perspective, the RDA for an adult male is only 150 micrograms per day (a microgram equals 1/1000 of a milligram – mg). The RDA is only enough to prevent goiter, but not enough to provide the iodine needs for the rest of the body that include cancer prevention, immunity, and skin health. I could go on and on about iodine, but that’s not the focus of this blog. However, if you are interested in reading more about iodine as a nutrient I recommend looking into the Linus Pauling Institute’s entry or reading the book Iodine: Why you need it, Why you can’t live without it by David Brownstein, MD.
- Children and fetuses are most at risk in the event of fallout, because thyroid cancer takes between 10 and 20 years to develop after exposure to radioactive iodine and they are growing so quickly that their thyroids are more “hungry” and therefore more vulnerable.
- The half life (meaning the amount of time it takes for quantities to reduce by half) of radioactive iodine is 8 days. This means that concentration is going to be highest when exposure first happens but over the course of a couple of weeks it will gradually fade (though in the event of a nuclear meltdown, large quantities of radioactive materials will persist in the environment for decades if not longer). My point in telling you this is that if at all possible, take preventive measures at the beginning of exposure when levels are highest.
- Vitamin E can also be very helpful for preventing side effects from radiation exposure (particularly the kind involved in cancer treatment). The generally suggested dose is 400 IU twice daily. Just be sure it is vitamin E in a natural form from supplements or from vitamin E rich foods such as cold-pressed oils or raw nuts.
- Homeopathic remedies have also been indicated in prevention of radiation side effects. That is not my expertise, however, so I won’t get into that too much except to say that if it’s something you would like to consider I would suggest working with someone knowledgable in the subject since homeopathic remedies need to be accurately prescribed to get the desired effects.
- As far as the current crisis goes, if things progress negatively (God forbid!) and risk of contamination is serious, our immediate exposure here in the United States depends on the jet stream pattern. Jet streams are narrow bands of high-altitude wind that move at high speeds around the world. To see updated jet stream maps, go to the San Francisco State University’s Jet Stream Map page.
Hopefully this information has helped you to calm your fears rather than add to them. I find that the worst thing in working with health is not understanding the risk of things we are dealing with because the mystery of it makes it that much more scary. On a personal note, if you’d like to know what I am doing for my family in preparation for the possibility of events taking a turn for the worse:
- I took our bottle of Iodoralout of the cabinet and put it on the counter so we’d remember to take a tablet each day (my husband and any friends that happen to be over take 1 tablet and I take 2 since I’m still breastfeeding the toddler formerly known as Mr. Milk). Even if nothing happens, I think it’s still good for us to get our iodine levels up since I occasionally experience some of the symptoms of low iodine levels such as PMS and my husband works in construction where he’s sometimes exposed to chemicals and heavy metals that can deplete iodine.
- I’m planning to serve more iodine-rich meals until the Japanese reactor situation is under control. This includes sushi, miso soup, eggs, fish, using ground seaweed in the form of Gomasio or powdered kelp as a seasoning, and adding a few pieces of dry kelp to soups or stews to release iodine.
- I’m stocking up on nori sheets (you can buy them here in huge packs at Costco). If you don’t have access to iodine tablets, seaweed is your next best bet. The amount of iodine varies, but an average estimate is that 1/4 ounce of dried seaweed can contain up to 4.5 mg of iodine! Nori sheets are one of my favorite forms of seaweed because they last forever, don’t take up much space, are inexpensive, and the big toddler loves to snack on them while running around the house. Since the situation is not more dire, I’m not having him take iodine supplements but I am letting him have his fill of nori. Radiation or not, it’s a great snack for kids and the iodine in it helps them become supremely intelligent so they will be able to figure out 10 times faster how to get around all of your household childproofing efforts.
- I’m also praying! A lot. For the people in Japan that have lost so much, for the brave workers at the nuclear plant who are putting themselves at risk to keep the rest of us safe, for mankind in general. I’m trusting that it will all work together for good, and I’m not letting myself go down a negative route of worrying…that’s bad for the thyroid!
NOTE: This blog is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified health care practitioner. If you are under medical care, especially if it is surrounding your thyroid, please work with a practitioner before adding iodine or any other nutritional supplement to your routine. Iodine should not be taken in large doses for extended periods of time without consulting a health care practitioner to determine specific needs.
March 15, 2011 24 Comments
In my practice I work with a lot of women who experience breast tenderness, especially right before their periods. I have found that eating half a sheet of Nori seaweed each day makes a drastic difference because it is so rich in iodine and iodine directly nourishes breast tissue and calms the inflammation associated with premenstrual pain. For people that don’t like the taste of nori, I recommend about 15 mg daily of an iodine/iodide mixture such as Iodoral or Lugol’s solution. If the pain is severe, try taking 50 mg of iodine and give it an hour or two before taking painkillers. Women tell me this works like a charm and has the added benefit of improving the elasticity of their skin! There are many factors involved in breast tenderness including caffeine intake and use of hormonal contraceptives, but from my point of view as a nutritionist, iodine is key.
And as always, I must say to please consult your doctor before making any changes in diet or lifestyle.
March 11, 2009 2 Comments