Many people are partial to the occasional sweet treat. Still, there’s a general consensus that too much sugar is not good for your health. In fact, many studies show a strong correlation between sugar and heart disease, diabetes, and even mental health.
Cancer is the most recent addition to the string of diseases resulting from indulging in large amounts of sugar. Published just this September, a University of Colorado Cancer Center study reveals that where there is consumption of extreme glucose, there is cancer.
Sugar and Cancer Risk
All cells in our body – including tumor cells – need glucose to function. We get that blood sugar from foods containing carbohydrates, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy sources. Our bodies also have a protein that produces some glucose. Problems start when people eat too much of the sweet stuff, consuming more calories than they need and gaining weight. While sugar doesn’t directly cause cancer, the subsequent increase in blood sugar and weight heightens a person’s chance of developing the deadly disease.
Malignant cells usually multiply at a rapid rate and they need the energy to do that. According to the new research, cancer hijacks the microbiome to fuel itself with glucose. In the study, leukemia was found to undercut the ability of normal cells to consume glucose, thus leaving more for itself to feed.
Craig Jordan, Ph.D., investigator at University of Colorado Cancer Center, division chief of the Division of Hematology and the Nancy Carroll Allen Professor of Hematology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says that leukemia cells create a diabetic-like condition that decreases sugar going to normal cells, and as a result, there is more energy available for the cancer cells. Literally, the disease is stealing fuel from normal cells to power growth of the tumor.
Cancer Sabotages Insulin Production and Absorption
Cancer’s strategies depend on insulin, much like in diabetes. Your healthy cells require this compound to utilize glucose. In diabetes, either the tissues cannot respond to insulin or the pancreas cannot produce enough of the substance. As a result, your cells are not able to get the energy that they need while sugar continues to build up in the blood. The current research proves that leukemia goes about creating similar conditions of glucose buildup in two ways.
Overproduction of IGFBP1
Cancer cells trick fat cells into producing large amounts of a protein called IGFBP1. This substance makes healthy cells less sensitive to insulin. That means when IGFBP1 is high, the body has to use more insulin to get the glucose that it needs. Unless the supply of insulin goes up, high IGFBP1 will prevent healthy cells from consuming enough glucose. This protein also has a potential link in the chain connecting obesity and cancer because the more fat, the more IGFBP1, and the more sugar becomes available to the disease.
Limiting Insulin Production
Aside from introducing new IGFBP1, tumor cells have a second strategy at preventing normal cells from getting the nutrients they need. The disease works to limit the production of insulin so that it doesn’t reach past what the IGFBP1 uses. In fact, cancers do this in the gut.
“In the course of doing this systemic analysis, we realized that some of the factors that help regulate glucose are made by the gut or bacteria in the gut. We looked there and found that the composition of the microbiome in leukemic animals was different than in control mice,” Jordan discusses.
The major difference that the leukemic mice had from the control group was a particular type of bacteria called bacteroids. These substances produce short-chain fatty acids that in turn promote the health of cells lining your gut. Without them, gut health suffers. The current findings show that without bacteroids, gut health becomes damaged in ways that specifically help cancer progress.
The Role Of Incretins
One of the ways in which leukemia does this is by decreasing the level of metabolic hormones called incretins in your blood. Incretins serve to regulate the amount of glucose in your blood, reducing it back to normal levels after they spike after a meal. In people with leukemia, these incretins are deactivated, allowing the levels of glucose in the body to remain at higher-than-normal levels.
Leukemia is also responsible for the impaired function of serotonin, which is the brain’s feel-good chemical responsible for regulating mood. However, this chemical has another function: it is indispensable for the production of insulin. By impairing serotonin, the diseases impairs the production of insulin in the body, leading to its reduced capability to use glucose.
As a result, a parasitic situation where there is less insulin available for use by healthy cells and more glucose appropriated for use by the cancer cells.
“The fairly prevalent observation is that cancer patients have a condition called ‘cachexia’, basically wasting away – you lose weight. If cancers are inducing systemic changes that result in depletion of energy stores, this could be part of the story”, notes Jordan.
However, the researchers also found that there is a way to remedy the dysfunctional glucose consumption by using serotonin and tributyrin, a fatty acid found in butter and other similar foods. Supplementing serotonin helped to replace the supply rendered inactive by the leukemia, while tributyrin helped to shore up the supply of short-chain fatty acids destroyed by the absence of bacteroids.
The researchers call this combination, the Ser-Tri therapy, and results so far are promising. When tested on leukemic mice, the team discovered that the group treated with Ser-Tri therapy outlived subjects who were not.
It’s important to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that cancer uses to undermine and appropriate the body’s functions for its own out-of-control growth. This helps scientists find ways to reverse these key processes and program the body fight back.
“This furthers the notion that you can do things systemically to disfavor leukemia cells and favor normal tissue,” Jordan says. “This could be part of limiting growth of tumors.”