Breast Health Tip #21: Avoid Sugar

BREAST HEALTH TIP #21: Avoid Sugar Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. These foods cause a surge in insulin and women with the highest insulin levels have a 283% higher incidence of breast cancer.

Dangerous Foe in a Sweet Disguise

Estimates are that every year the average American eats almost his or her entire body weight in sugar. The average teenage boy eats thirty-four teaspoons of sugar a day, and the average teenage girl consumes twenty-four. You can easily see how this is possible when you add it up. Sugar is added to virtually all processed foods, especially soda pop. The average can of cola, such as Coke or Pepsi, contains ten to twelve teaspoons of sugar! There’s a new breakfast cereal with a whopping eighteen teaspoons of sugar per serving; that’s one-third of a cup, or the equivalent of forty-eight Hershey’s Kisses. You’re probably aware that sugar’s bad for your teeth, but you can brush them. So, what’s the big deal, you might ask? The big deal is that research shows that sugar and refined carbohydrates are detrimental to your health in a multitude of ways, including increasing the risk of many chronic disorders including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and breast cancer.

Cancer cells love sugar. It’s their preferred fuel. The more sugar you eat, the faster cancer cells grow. Your pancreas responds to sugar by releasing insulin, the hormone that escorts sugar into your cells. When you eat refined simple sugars, such as white table sugar, candy, cookies, or other sugar-laden foods, your blood sugar levels rise very quickly. Your pancreas responds by releasing a lot of insulin. That’s not good. High insulin levels are one of the biggest risk factors and promoters of breast cancer. Women with high insulin levels have a 283 percent greater risk of breast cancer.

When it comes to breast cancer, insulin is no friend. One of the biggest reason is due to the fact that both normal breast cells and cancer cells have insulin receptors on them. When insulin attaches to its receptor, it has the same effect as when estrogen attaches to its receptor; it causes cells to start dividing. The higher your insulin levels are, the faster your breast cells will divide; the faster they divide, the higher your risk of breast cancer is and the faster any existing cancer cells will grow.

There’s another wound that insulin can inflict, too. It attacks a portion of the estrogen cycle, making more estrogen available to attach to the estrogen receptors in breast tissue. Insulin regulates how much of the estrogen in your blood is available to attach to estrogen receptors in your breast tissue. When estrogen travels in the blood, it either travels alone seeking a mate (an estrogen receptor), or it travels with a partner (a protein binder) that prevents it from attaching to an estrogen receptor. Insulin regulates the number of protein binders in the blood. So, the higher your insulin levels are, the fewer the number of protein binders there will be and therefore the more free estrogen that will be available to attach to estrogen receptors.

In other words, when your insulin levels are up, free-estrogen levels are up, too. And both of them speed up cell division. That’s why high insulin levels increase your risk of breast cancer so much.

Eating sugar increases your risk of breast cancer in another way. It delivers a major blow to your immune system with the force of a prize fighter. Your immune system is your natural defense against such invaders as bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. Research shows that right after you eat a high-sugar meal, the function of the cells in your immune system drops drastically. In the case of one type of cell in particular, the T lymphocyte (a type of white blood cell), sugar knocks its defense abilities down by at least 50 percent. This effect lasts for a minimum of five hours! Another researcher found that the function of T lymphocytes dropped by 94 percent after a high-sugar meal! This means that right after you’ve eaten a lot of sugar, your body’s ability to fight off invaders or destroy cancer cells is tremendously weakened for several hours.

Over a period of time, eating too much sugar can create imbalances that lead to two more deadly diseases: obesity and diabetes. Both of these diseases dangerously increase your risk of breast cancer, and both have increased alarmingly in the United States in the past two decades. An estimated 60 percent of the adult population is overweight, and 5 percent have diabetes. Of those people who have diabetes, 90 percent are also overweight. Not only do these diseases increase your risk of breast cancer, but they also increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, poor circulation, stroke, and infection.

A study conducted by Harvard Medical School and published in 2004 found that women who ate foods with a high glycemic index (foods that cause blood sugars to soar, such as refined carbohydrates and sugars) as teenagers had a higher incidence of breast cancer later in life. So, encouraging your teenage daughter to cut back on sugar will help her to lower her risk of breast cancer for the rest of her life.

Now, the good news: If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be relieved to know that you don’t have to suffer. There’s a natural sweetener that tastes great, and better yet, research has shown that instead of being dangerous to your health, it actually has several wonderful health-supporting qualities. It’s called Stevia, and it comes from the South American plant Stevia rebaudiana. What’s interesting about this semi shrub, indigenous to Paraguay, is that every part of it tastes intensely sweet. The dried leaves, however, are the only parts that are used for medicinal and commercial purposes. Scientists have found that Stevia’s delightfully sweet flavor comes from a group of substances in it called “glycosidal diterpenes.”

Compared to sugar, only very small amounts of Stevia are needed. That’s because Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sucrose, the type of sugar found in table sugar. Stevia hasn’t yet been approved by the FDA as a food additive — write your senators and Congressional representatives! — so at this time you won’t find it in any processed foods in the United States. In this country Stevia is considered a dietary supplement. Health food stores and national-chain grocery stores that specialize in organic foods, such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods, usually carry Stevia.

Stevia comes in multiple forms: a fine white powder, a green powder, or a liquid. I found that certain brands of Stevia can taste bitter or leave a weird aftertaste if you use too much. There’s one brand, however, that solved this problem by adding some fiber to it. It is called SteviaPlus by SweetLeaf.

Stevia can also be used in cooking, but it’s a little tricky. The amount you should use can vary a lot from brand to brand, so you definitely should use a Stevia cookbook. Many of the companies with Stevia products have their own cookbooks.

Stevia has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years by the native tribes in Paraguay and Brazil to treat high blood pressure and diabetes. Modern research has shown that it does help both conditions. Stevia causes blood vessels to dilate. When the diameter of a blood vessel increases, the blood pressure in it goes down. A double-blind placebo-controlled study was published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in the year 2000 documenting Stevia’s ability to lower blood pressure. Researchers found that after only three months, patients with high blood pressure who were given Stevia three times a day had a significant decrease in both their systolic (the upper number) and diastolic (the lower number) blood-pressure numbers.

Stevia is a great sugar substitute for people who really need to avoid sugar, such as diabetics. In addition, Stevia has an added benefit for type 2 diabetics: It seems to have an effect opposite to that of sugar on their bodies; it causes blood sugar to go down. Research has also discovered two more Stevia health benefits. First, it can kill certain bacteria and viruses. In a study published in 2001, Stevia was found to have antiviral effects against the rotavirus. This virus can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration, especially in infants. Secondly, Stevia shows a strong ability to kill a wide range of food-born bacteria.

Another, healthy natural substitute for sugar is also available. It’s made from Luo Han Guo, the round green fruit of the Chinese plant Siraita grosvenori. Luo Han Guo has been used in China as a medicine since the thirteenth century, but it didn’t become popular as a remedy for coughs, sore throats, and upper respiratory-tract infections until the twentieth century. In southern China Luo Han Guo is also used to enhance longevity. Like Stevia, Luo Han Guo is about 300 times sweeter than sugar and is processed into a fine, white crystalline powder. Wisdom Natural Brands makes a sugar substitute using a blend of Luo Han Guo and fructose called Sweet and Slender. It can be purchased at most health food stores or on the Internet.

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Written by Christine Horner MD FACS

Explore Wellness in 2021