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Cortisol & Cancer: How Lowering Stress Can Help Prevent Cancer

by Dr. Sara Gottfried

cortisol and cancer

Every week on the news, online, in a magazine, we hear or read about the ever-elusive “cure for cancer.” So far, it’s still a far-off medical goal. While I think it’s important for us to keep researching treatment options for all the men and women affected by cancer, I also want people to focus on an equally important part of their health management:

Cancer prevention.

An Ounce of Prevention…

The best way to beat cancer is to keep from getting it altogether. The scientific community learns more each year, but we already know some proven ways that people, even those genetically predisposed to breast or ovarian cancer, can seriously better their odds. Basically, the best time to get healthy is before you face a serious medical problem.

Even if you’re genetically programmed to develop depression or cancer, the way you eat, supplement, and move can change – for the better – the expression of your genetic code. This is also known as epigenetics, and this emerging field focuses on lifestyle habits that generate the very best possible expression of your genes.

How Chaos Leads to Cancer

Do you complain about the lack of free time in your schedule? On a daily basis do you feel frazzled, forgetful, rushed? Do you have belly fat? How about a hard time getting a full night of restful sleep?

You, my friend, are stressed.

Most of us are juggling jobs, family, and finances, and all those responsibilities are taking a toll on our health. When we stay stressed, levels of cortisol, the the main stress hormone, stay elevated. HIgh cortisol also means a sustained rise in blood sugar, and this can be the precursor to drops in thyroid, estrogen, and testosterone. These untreated hormone imbalances can have serious consequences for your health, including osteoporosis, obesity, and breast cancer.

The stress of our daily lives alters the biochemical processes of our bodies. This is medical fact. Stress is the top reason behind most visits to the doctor, and it contributes to all the big causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.

How are Your Telomeres?

Another way you can evaluate your cancer risk, beyond just your general stress level or your family history, is by measuring your telomeres. Excessive shortening of telomeres (those cute little caps on the ends of your chromosomes) is also associated with developing cancer and experiencing a higher risk of death, as well as with aging. And guess what? High cortisol and chronic stress shorten telomeres like nobody’s business.

De-Stress to Prevent Cancer

Luckily, cases of excessive stress, unbalanced hormones, and shortened telomeres are all reversible. Better yet, the remedies are natural, proven, and can (and should!) be woven seamlessly into your day-to-day life. Here are a few of my favorite natural practices that have been proven to lower cancer risk:

Yoga

The benefits of yoga don’t just come from performing the poses. Yoga has been proven to decrease cortisol, blood pressure, and blood sugar across all demographics. One study showed that it specifically lowers blood sugar in women with breast cancer.

Yoga is so powerful at lowering cortisol through movement, mindfulness, and breath awareness that there’s often a side benefit: you will lose weight. High cortisol can block production of thyroid hormone, which is a requirement for a healthy metabolism. Obesity and belly fat are also increased risk factors for cancer, so dropping a few pounds is as good for your longevity as it is for how you look in the mirror.

Ditch the Drink

If you indulge in a nightly glass of wine or a beer after work, you’re upping your risk for cancer and raising cortisol at the same time. Studies have shown that more than three drinks per week increase cortisol as well as your risk for breast cancer. Bring down the amount of alcohol in your system for an immediate health boost. My solution is to drink less, but higher quality wine. Yum!

You can also calculate your risk for breast cancer at the following site: www.cancer.gov/bcrisktool

Clean Your Environment

High estrogen is linked to breast and endometrial cancer. One of the best ways to prevent higher-than-healthy levels of estrogen may surprise you: go totally organic. Lots of the chemicals found in the textiles and home products we use on a daily basis, known as PCBs and xenoestrogens, are linked to increased cancer risk.

You can clean up your environment by sticking to organic clothing and furniture (anything with flame retardants is especially toxic), organic food, and organic cosmetic products. Try to use glass food containers and a reusable water bottle instead of disposable plastic ones. You might also want to look into the risks associated with any antidepressants or birth control pills that you take.

Solid Sleep

We know that falling asleep by 10 p.m. provides optimal production of melatonin and helps regulate your daily cortisol output. Blind women have a higher production of melatonin than women with normal eyesight do, and their risk of breast cancer is 50% lower.

Take Turmeric

Turmeric is best known as an ingredient in curry, but it has also been shown to counter the proliferative effect of estrogen on cancer cells.

Cortisol Controlled & Cancer-Free

There are many more ways you can tweak your daily habits and develop a cancer-busting lifestyle, but a goal of balanced hormones and the above tips are a great place to start. I encourage you to evaluate your own cancer risk and work with a clinician to see what tweaks you can make to your own day-to-day that will prevent cancer in the long run. I believe that it’s the small, slow, daily habits that create true change. Like everything in life, positive results often require a little work.

Sources:
Banasik J, Williams H, Haberman M, Blank SE, Bendel R. “Effect of Iyengar yoga practice on fatigue and diurnal salivary cortisol concentration in breast cancer survivors.” Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners 23 (3) (2011): 135-42. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-7599.2010.00573.x; Bijlani RL, Vempati RP, Yadav RK, Ray RB, Gupta V, Sharma R, Mehta N, Mahapatra SC. “A brief but comprehensive lifestyle education program based on yoga reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 11(2) (2005): 267-74.

Cummings SR, Tice JA, Bauer S, Browner WS, Cuzick J, Ziv E, Vogel V, Shepherd J, Vachon C, Smith-Bindman R, Kerlikowske K. “Prevention of breast cancer in postmenopausal women: approaches to estimating and reducing risk.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 101 (6) (2009): 384-98.

Li CI, Chlebowski RT, Freiberg M, Johnson KC, Kuller L, Lane D, Lessin L, O’Sullivan MJ, Wactawski-Wende J, Yasmeen S, Prentice R. “Alcohol consumption and risk of postmenopausal breast cancer by subtype: the women’s health initiative observational study.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 102 (18) (2010):1422-31; Chen WY, Rosner B, Hankinson SE, Colditz GA, Willett WC. “Moderate alcohol consumption during adult life, drinking patterns, and breast cancer risk.” Journal of the American Medical Association 306 (17) (2011): 1884-90.

Nidich SI, Rainforth MV, Haaga DA, Hagelin J, Salerno JW, Travis F, Tanner M, Gaylord-King C, Grosswald S, Schneider RH. “A randomized controlled trial on effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on blood pressure, psychological distress, and coping in young adults.” American Journal of Hypertension 22 (12) (2009):1326-31; Schneider R, Nidich S, Kotchen JM, Kotchen T, Grim C, Rainforth M, King CG, Salerno J. “Abstract 1177: Effects of Stress Reduction on Clinical Events in African Americans With Coronary Heart Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial” American Heart Association, Inc. 120 (2009): S461; Campbell TS, Labelle LE, Bacon SL, Faris P, Carlson LE. “Impact of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on attention, rumination and resting blood pressure in women with cancer: A waitlist-controlled study.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2011)

Singh M, Singh N. “Curcumin counteracts the proliferative effect of estradiol and induces apoptosis in cervical cancer cells.” Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry 347 (1-2) (2011): 1-11.

photo credit: thornypup

 

About the author...

 teaches women and men how to balance their hormones naturally so they can rock their mission and marriage. She is a Harvard-educated physician, MIT-trained bioengineer, certified yoga teacher, and speaker. She is regularly featured in magazines such as O Magazine, Glamour, and Yoga Journal, and TV, including The Ricki Lake Show and 20/20. Dr. Sara recently released her New York Times best seller The Hormone Cure which is invaluable for men and women looking to restore their youthful zeal.

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