In this article you will learn:
A little about what antioxidants do
What some controversial research has said about them and cancer
How to incorporate antioxidants mindfully and safely into your routine
Much like this article on B vitamin and cancer controversies, this topic warrants further exploration because it is one of those that is likely to bring some confusion to
your journey. In the early 90’s, a huge study called the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study was done in Finland. It followed over 29,000 male smokers from 5 to 8 years while either in a control group (no supplements), a placebo group, a group taking vitamin E, a group taking beta carotene (vitamin A, plant derived) or a group taking a mix of both.(1)
In the follow up period of this study, the shocking result was that those in the beta carotene group showed an increased incidence of lung cancer by a whopping 18%. This study threw a wrench in our understanding of antioxidants at the time as panaceas for aging and cancer. More research has come out since that time that calls their use into question- at the very least, in specific situations where someone is already sick with cancer.
Before we get into some of that, it’s important to understand exactly why there may be an issue to begin with. In the article mentioned above, the point was that certain B vitamins (like B12, B9 and B3) are food for all types of cells – even cancer. What this means is that high circulating levels of these B vitamins combined with certain high-risk behaviors like smoking or excessive alcohol use can form the perfect environment for cancer cells to grow faster than your immune system can handle.
Remember that every day we have some cancer from all of the crazy crap going on in our bodies, but the immune system usually takes care of these situations in time before they become a problem. If you’re drinking or smoking regularly, chances are your habits aren’t the best, which means your immune system is compromised in some way on top of the constant chemical damage you’re doing to your insides.
Combine that with extra food for the bad guys, and it may be a recipe for a big problem down the road.
But does that mean that B vitamins cause cancer?
This is unlikely, since B vitamins are needed for many important processes in the body that prevent cancer (like a healthy immune system), and they have been used in high amounts for a variety of therapeutic purposes. Remember that these studies never look at a complete nutrition program, the effect of genes, sex, the form of a supplement or its cofactors, existing toxicities and all of the other elements that go into creating the
final problem. So, drawing a conclusion as crazy as B vitamins or antioxidants causing cancer is just bad science.
That said, a similar phenomenon seems to happen with antioxidants and cancer cells.
It’s important to note that the amount of vitamin E used in the often-cited study above was actually miniscule and could not be considered a therapeutic dose (50mg). Nor is it clear that retinol (animal derived, more bioavailable vitamin A) would have caused the same problems as beta carotene, which was also used in a miniscule amount of 20mg. Many people can't process beta carotene genetically, so this alone is a big question mark.
This study also wasn’t reproduced with more variables to answer these questions of dosage and form, and even the original conditions were questionable from a nutritional perspective. Nevertheless, other research on melanoma cancer cells echoed these
concerns by studying the effect of antioxidants like NAC on oxidative stress in cancer cells. These studies showed that antioxidants actually help cancer cells by reducing the oxidative stress (free radicals) that normally would induce them to die, in a sense feeding them and helping them proliferate throughout the body.(2,3)
Further research on rats using NAC found that it could reduce emphysema and inflammation, but it helped to promote the spread of lung cancer when the rats were exposed to chemical stress.(4)
I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The hypothesis behind these findings is that NAC’s benefits may extend to cancer cells and prevent cell death, thereby allowing them to skirt your body’s natural defenses in a weird and unfortunate way. A very important gene called TP53 (or P53) is involved in the monitoring of many types of cancer, and it seems that NAC and other antioxidants reduce its effectiveness because the gene turns on in the presence of free radicals.
Because antioxidants reduce free radicals, they may reduce the expression of this tumor protective gene by fooling it into thinking there’s no problem, which in turn allows the cancer cells to grow unchecked.(5)
So, are antioxidants going to give you cancer or kill you if you have it? As always, it’s
complicated. Everything has a purpose, even free radicals, and health is always a story of finding Dynamic Balance between two Opposites. The type of cancer is significant, as some are more vulnerable to oxidative stress (like melanoma) and may get “extra protection” by having lots of NAC floating around.
If you have a crappy TP53 gene (which means increased risk for various cancers) or
a family history of a type of cancer, do everything possible to mitigate your risk through lifestyle choices, and keep regular tabs on yourself through testing. Antioxidants like vitamin E, C and selenium are needed building blocks for your body and should not be ignored, but they may warrant further investigation and tweaking if a problem does develop.
For example, you may reduce your intake of vitamin E (but not eliminate it since your body still needs it) while taking cancer drugs or natural therapies that are intended to kill the cancer cells by inducing free radicals in them. If you have a normal TP53 gene (you can find out through a Self Decode report) and no family history of cancer, still do everything possible to mitigate your cancer risk.
This means avoiding smoking, excessive drinking, stress, toxins - and everything else that ages you - as much as possible. If you are using a complete nutrition program
like the one described here, your immune system will be strong and you will have the
building blocks needed to keep the bad guys under control.
Remember, though, that things like B vitamins and antioxidants are not cell-specific. So, if you’re taking in lots of nutrition but still have naughty habits like smoking or vaping, it’s best you find a way to quit these things as soon as possible. If not, you may create the perfect storm by combining lots of nutrition with lots of mutating cells from free radical damage.
This topic may seem scary and throw the breaks on your quest to align your body, but don’t let it. Remember that there are countless studies on the cancer-preventative roles of nutrients like vitamin E, selenium, vitamin C, NAC and all of the other dozens of things that I discuss frequently on the podcast and in here.
Work all of the principles of healthy eating, supplementation, testing and the rest of what’s in here, and you will give yourself the best fighting chance possible. It is true (and scary) that our modern lives have created a cancer epidemic, but good habits are always the best medicine and the future looks bright, regardless.
In the end the key is to know your individual risks and always do your research. Do not buy the hype about vitamins and antioxidants with cancer and panic, but do realize that there are some genuine points of concern from everything we’ve discussed that warrant being intentional with your choices. Every case is different, every type of cancer has its considerations and the key is to find a trusted specialist who can incorporate the principles of good nutrition alongside other therapies to help your body heal in the safest possible way, if you have fallen ill.
You have the power to make informed decisions, and if you need support in this area don't be afraid to reach out either.