Ditch multi-vitamins. Stand up more. Wear better shoes… Can these simple habits stop you getting cancer
They are radical and provocative claims: taking multi-vitamins and supplements can increase your risk of cancer over a lifetime.
Sitting down most of the day — even if you have a strenuous workout in the morning — can be as bad as, or worse than, smoking.
And ‘superfoods’ such as tomatoes aren’t the magic disease fighters they’re claimed to be.
Dr David Agus's expert conviction is that prevention really is the only way to win the fight against this disease
Challenging Certainly. But they are just some of the fascinating arguments from a respected U.S. oncologist who has spent the past 20 years conducting clinical trials and treating people with cancer.
In a controversial new book, The End Of Illness, Dr David Agus admits that science is struggling to treat advanced cancers and urges a sea change in thinking that puts the emphasis on protecting rather than curing. He recommends a set of highly unconventional cancer-preventing habits.
From wearing comfortable shoes to eating lunch at the same time each day, each of his rules is backed by scientific evidence.
His expert conviction (based on decades studying the action of cancer cells at a molecular level) is that prevention really is the only way to win the fight against this disease.
‘Cancer is the ultimate nemesis that hangs in the balance for one in three women and one in two men in their lifetime,’ says Dr Agus, professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
‘We may never understand illnesses such as cancer.
'In fact, we may never cure it. But an ounce of prevention is worth more than a million pounds of cure.’
His approach is based on the conviction that cancer is far less likely to be something the body ‘gets’ but something it just naturally ‘does’.
Dr Agus believes we are all ‘cancering’ most of the time — by this he means mutant genes are constantly triggering abnormal cell growth in different parts of our body.
However, in a healthy body this is constantly being dealt with in a variety of ways (for instance, chemical messengers are automatically sent to halt that abnormal growth).
‘Cancer is like a sleeping giant dormant in all of us,’ he says.
‘Sometimes he briefly awakens, inciting a collection of odd cells called a tumour, but, in most cases, before long he’s lulled back to sleep by the body’s arsenal of artful mechanisms.’
Problems occur when something happens to weaken our defence mechanism, says Dr Agus. Then cells continue malfunctioning, and cancerous tumours grow out of control.
He believes the best way to prevent this is to do whatever it takes to maintain the body’s natural healthy state.
The body is constantly seeking the simplicity of ‘homeostasis’ where all its systems are in perfect balance and operating on an even keel.
‘When we place too many stresses on the body unnecessarily, such as through drugs, inconsistent schedules, sleep deprivation and excessive exercising, eating or drinking, we break the body’s delicate homeo-stasis,’ he says.
And that’s when we are much more likely to get ill.
Many of Dr Agus’s rules step outside conventional thinking on prevention — he questions the supposed protection offered by multi-vitamins, for instance, and certain ‘magic bullet’ fresh fruits and vegetables (such as tomatoes, considered by many a cancer-fighting superfood).
He also cites research to show that exercising vigorously for more than an hour at a time can cause more harm than good.
Dr Agus is not suggesting his ideas as alternatives to cancer treatment — he supports conventional medicine. His aim is to help prevent cancer developing in the first place.
Though he is the first to admit his views are contentious, they are backed by scientific evidence and a wealth of expertise. Here, we reveal some of Dr Agus’s cancer-fighting rules:
LOSE THE HEELS
Damaging your joints by doing something as simple as wearing uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes every day for decades will add to the body's inflammatory load
Dr Agus argues that supportive, cushioned footwear can protect us against cancer by helping cut down on unnecessary sources of inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process — it’s triggered when the body encounters harmful stimuli, such as bacteria, injury or irritants.
However, when inflammation becomes chronic it can become destructive.
‘Volumes of international research prove just how insidious chronic inflammation can be on the body,’ he says.
‘Certain kinds of inflammation have been linked — in multiple studies — to our most troubling degenerative diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, auto-immune diseases and diabetes, and can drama-tically increase cancer risk.’
Cancer is essentially caused by genes that are damaged or faulty. Genes carry instructions that tell our cells what to do and are encoded within our DNA. Anything that damages DNA or hinders its natural repair process can increase the risk of cancer.
Dr Agus believes that when faced with chronic inflammation, the body shuts down its DNA repair process to concentrate on the inflammation.
‘And when the body’s DNA repair shop is closed, the body can become vulnerable to cancer and other diseases.’
He argues that damaging your joints by doing something as simple as wearing uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes every day for decades will add to the body’s inflammatory load, distracting the body from the important task of DNA repair and preventing cancer.
HAVE A FLU JAB
Another important way to keep inflammation levels low is to avoid colds and get every vaccination available, including the flu jab.
‘Not only does flu come with staggering amounts of inflammation, but it leaves destructive marks in its path,’ says Dr Agus.
He explains that as your body struggles to deal with the viral invader, it releases a storm of damaging chemicals called cytokines, which act as signals to other cells in the body, telling them to divide, produce certain proteins or cease production. This can wreak havoc on your health as much as ten years later.
A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2010 found that annual flu jabs can prevent heart attacks.
Based on this and other studies, Dr Agus believes that: ‘Two weeks of inflammatory storm — the result of recovering from a bad seasonal cold or flu — can increase our lifetime risk of myriad illnesses, including obesity, heart attack, stroke and cancer.’
If you can’t or won’t get vaccinated, Dr Agus advocates ‘good hygiene’ and staying away from people with runny noses to reduce the risk of infection.
Dr Argus is adamant that money is always better spent on quality, nutrient-packed foods than on expensive supplements
Unless you have a diagnosed deficiency or are pregnant, it is likely you don’t need to be taking multi-vitamins and other supplements, says Dr Agus.
He believes they simply don’t live up to the hype.
In 2010, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed 63 respected trials and found that multi-vitamins did nothing to prevent cancer or heart disease in most populations (except for developing countries, where nutritional deficiencies are widespread).
In fact, Dr Agus cites research that indicates particular supplements (such as beta carotene, vitamin E and vitamin C) could be damaging your health and increasing your risk of health-related problems.
Many people believe antioxidants such as vitamin E help combat ‘harmful’ free radicals — molecules produced by smoke, sunlight, food and even breathing, which are linked to diseases such as cancer.
But Dr Agus says wiping out free radicals isn’t good news after all.
‘The body likes to create free radicals to attack bad cells, including cancerous ones,’ he says.
‘If you block that mechanism by taking copious vitamins, especially those touted as antioxidants, you block the body’s natural ability to control itself and disrupt a system we don’t fully understand yet.’
He is adamant that money is always better spent on quality, nutrient-packed foods than on expensive supplements.
GET ON YOUR FEET
While Dr Agus agrees exercise is excellent for your health, he says the most important anti-cancer message is to avoid long-term inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle.
Just as exercise spurs positive metabolic changes, a sedentary life causes negative metabolic changes — such as raising levels of triglycerides (dangerous fats in the blood), cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and the appetite hormone leptin — which are risk factors for obesity, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses, including cancer.
A 2010 study by the American Cancer Society found that sitting down for more than six hours a day (outside work) poses a health risk as ‘insidious’ as smoking or over-exposure to the sun.
Women seem to be more severely affected by inactivity than men (possibly because the female hormone, oestrogen, can have a blood-clotting action).
In the study, women who sat for a long time were 37 per cent more likely to die during the 13 years studied than those who sat for fewer than three hours a day.
For sedentary men, the figure was only 18 per cent more likely. Worryingly, a regular exercise programme may not be enough to compensate.
Dr Agus cites a report by the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia, that concluded: ‘Two hours of exercise per day will not compensate for 22 hours of sitting.’
In addition to regular exercise, Dr Agus recommends finding opportunities to move your body as much as you can during the day — take the stairs, not the lift, and walk around when you’re on a mobile phone.
FORGET THE LIE-IN
When it comes to sleep, Dr Argus recommends sticking to the same sleep-wake schedule seven days a week
Eating meals at the same times each day and adhering to a rigid bedtime and wake-up call seven days a week, 365 days a year, keeps potentially damaging body stress at a minimum, says Dr Agus.
‘Of all the things a body loves, predictability is one of them,’ he says, reiterating the importance of ‘homeostasis’, which he calls ‘constancy in the face of environmental fluctuations’.
When it comes to sleep, he recommends sticking to the same sleep-wake schedule seven days a week (setting your alarm for the usual time, even after a late night).
This is because irregular sleep patterns and meal times delayed by just two or three hours can cause surges in the stress hormone, cortisol, which can be enough to trigger potentially damaging hormonal changes throughout the body.
ASK FOR STATINS
In Britain, these cholesterol-lowering drugs are routinely prescribed by doctors to people at high risk of heart disease, but Dr Agus argues they could have a more widespread role to play.
He cites studies that show statins have a surprisingly powerful anti-inflammatory action that can reduce your risk of many diseases.
He recommends that everyone over the age of 40 with any of the many risk factors for heart disease (such as being overweight, family history and high blood pressure) should ask their GP about being put on a statin.
He quotes one large study from last year that showed ‘statins don’t just reduce your risk of heart attack.
They reduce your overall risk of dying from non-cardiac events, particularly respiratory illness and infections’.
He also recommends that people nearing 50 should talk to their GP about the long-term health benefits of a low-dose daily aspirin, even if they don’t suffer from heart disease, citing research that suggests it cuts the risk of all cancers.
'HEALTHY' JUICES MAY ACTUALLY BE BAD FOR YOU
As well as introducing his ‘new’ health rules, there are some established principles Dr Agus supports — though sometimes with a new spin.
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. But Dr Agus advises against focusing on so-called magic bullet foods, such as tomatoes. This is because he says studies haven’t been able to ‘verify the hype’ about the cancer-fighting properties, for instance, of lycopene found in tomatoes. Instead,
he recommends a variety of fruit and vegetables in season, as ripe as
possible (or frozen), and eaten as soon as possible after purchase.
is also vehemently anti-juicing because, he says, it exposes the flesh
of the fruit or vegetable, instantly oxidising it (which speeds the
decaying process) and changing its nutritional make-up. ‘When foods
break down, they degrade into chemicals we don’t yet understand,’ he
says.Eat wholefoods, which are always better than processed.Eat a diet rich in good fats, such as olive oil, nuts and seeds. Avoid a low-fat diet because it deprives the body of essential fats.Have fish three times a week and red wine (one medium glass a night) five nights a week.Find out your family health history and ask for relevant health tests/check-ups (regardless of the age they might normally be offered to you). Know what your baseline health feels like and flag up any concerns with your GP. Early diagnosis is crucial.
Adapted from The End Of Illness by Dr David Agus (Simon & Schuster, 14.99). To order a copy for 12.99 (incl P&P), call 0843 382 0000.