"[Omega-3's] interfere with inflammation, thereby reducing its effect on muscle ... Loss of muscle mass and fat is bad for cancer patients because it hampers their ability to respond to cancer treatments."
If you've known anyone with advanced cancer, chances are they have experienced cachexia, also called catabolic wasting. Cachexia, or more precisely cancer anorexia-cachexia syndrome (CACS), is a clinical wasting syndrome characterized by unintended and progressive weight loss. Both muscle and fat tend to be lost.
More than 80 percent of patients with advanced cancer develop cachexia, especially those with solid tumors. Cachexia is more common among children and elderly patients, and it becomes more pronounced as the cancer progresses.
Patients experience anorexia, chronic nausea, early satiety, and changes in how foods taste to them, making previously enjoyed foods less palatable. If you've ever had a friend or family member with cachexia, your loved one may have seemed to "waste away" before your very eyes.
Cancer patients can have other adverse effects, associated with the cachexia:
Anemia Hyperlipidemia and insulin resistance Fatigue and weakness after minimal activity Psychological distress Systemic inflammation Diminished quality of life Edema
Cachexia is a SERIOUS and complex metabolic syndrome—it is estimated to be responsible for one-fifth to one-third of all cancer deaths.
This may be explained, at least in part, by a 2010 study in mice that showed the wasting can result in damage to the heart. This is quite significant because prior to now, most clinicians believed cachexia did not affect the heart muscle in the way it does skeletal muscle.
This study demonstrated that cancer cachexia impairs heart function by causing "increased fibrosis, disrupted myocardial structure, and altered composition of contractile proteins of cardiac muscle."
What Causes Cachexia?
It used to be thought that cancer increased your metabolic demand and suppressed your appetite, resulting in malnutrition. However, new research shows there is more to it than that.
Cancer actually alters your metabolism from an anabolic one (muscle building) to a catabolic one (muscle breakdown). Recent research shows that cancer raises your resting metabolic rate, and supplemental general nutrition does not alleviate it.
Today, clinicians believe that tissue wasting results from a variety of tumor products, immune factors, and cytokines.
According to an article in Life Extension:
"The cytokines interleukin-1 (IL-1), IL-6, interferon-gamma, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), and brain-derived neurotrophic factor appear to increase and play a role in the progression of cachexia in cancer, as well as in other diseases associated with bodily wasting."
Basically, you end up with an energy deficit, so your body is forced to use your muscles, internal organs and fat for energy. Add to that the ravaging side effects of common cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and it is easy to understand why your loved one looks malnourished and even emaciated.
Numerous Other Studies Show the Positive Effects of Omega-3s on Cachexia
This is not the first study showing that omega-3 fatty acids may help to reverse cancer-induced cachexia. Studies in mice have been very favorable, and studies in humans have been largely favorable.
The "not favorable" human studies often involve treatment with insufficient doses of omega-3 fatty acids, or treatment over too short of a time. Because these studies have been done mostly on late-stage cancer patients (since they are the ones with the worst cachexia), there is a relatively high attrition rate, which skews the results toward "unfavorable."
The bottom line is, the sooner you bump up your omega-3 levels, the better your long-term outcome will be.
Here are a few of the specific studies:
- A 2004 study of human patients with advanced malignancy found that, although the majority of patients did not gain weight with the fish oil, a subset of patients had weight stabilization or weight gain. The researchers theorized that the length of time patients receive omega-3 supplementation is a factor—the longer, the more significant the positive effect. They also suggested inadequate dose as the explanation for part of the lack of effect in some patients.
- A study in 1996 of eighteen human pancreatic cancer patients showed that taking fish oil capsules resulted in less muscle wasting, and many actually gained lean body mass.
- A 2000 study investigating the effects of a combination of omega-3 fatty acids AND vitamin E found the combination produced a significant immunomodulating effect, and the omega-3 prolonged patient survival.
- A 1990 scientific study of cachexia-inducing tumors in mice showed that when part of the carbohydrate calories in their diet was replaced by fish oil, their weight loss was inhibited.
- A 1991 study found that fish oil concentrate inhibited skeletal muscle degradation and even reduced tumor size in mice.
Krill Oil—NOT Fish Oil—Is Your Best Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The time to begin supplementing your diet with these important fatty acids is NOW, rather that waiting until you have cancer or another serious disease.
The average American diet is seriously deficient in the animal based omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA. Except for certain types of fish, there are very few sources of these important fats.
Unfortunately, fish supplies around the world are found more contaminated every year as increasing numbers of fish test positive for mercury, PCBs, toxic metals like lead and arsenic, and radioactive substances like strontium. If you have cancer, the LAST thing you want to do is place additional stress on your body by taking in toxic heavy metals.
Your safest and most cost effective choice for bumping up your omega-3 fatty acids is taking a high-quality Antarctic krill oil.
Krill oil is superior to fish oil because it contains phospholipids, a very powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin, and omega-3s bonded together in a way that keeps them safe from oxidation and easily absorbed by your body. Krill oil is 48 times more potent than fish oil. Many popular fish oil brands are already oxidized before you open the bottle.
And harvesting krill is more sustainable and earth-friendly than harvesting fish.
Your risk of getting mercury contamination from krill is extremely low, since krill are so small they don't have the chance to accumulate toxins before being harvested.
Plant based omega-3 sources like flax, hemp and chia are high in ALA and are important sources of nutrients, as we all need ALA. However, the key point to remember is that ALA has to be converted by your body into far more essential EPA and DHA by an enzyme in which the vast majority of us are deficient.
So, I believe it is essential to get some of your omega-3 fatty acids from animal sources.
There are studies that even show ALA from flaxseed can actually increase your risk of cancer. Personally, I regularly include ALA omega-3 plant based foods in my diet, like flax and hemp, but these are always combined with animal-based omega-3 fats.
Other Important Nutritional Aspects, for Those Who Have Cancer
No one wants to battle cancer.
But if you find yourself in this unfortunate position, many of the lifestyle suggestions for preventing cancer apply to treating it as well.
Besides omega-3 fatty acids, you should also address the following:
- Optimize your vitamin D. Vitamin D influences virtually every cell in your body and is one of nature's most potent cancer-fighters. Vitamin D is actually able to enter cancer cells and trigger apoptosis (cell death).
If you have cancer, your vitamin D level should be between 70 and 100 ng/ml. Vitamin D works synergistically with every cancer treatment I'm aware of, with no adverse effects. I invite you to watch my one-hour free lecture on vitamin D to learn how to best optimize your vitamin D level.
- Eat the right foods for your Nutritional Type. If you are not familiar with this approach, start by taking my FREE Nutritional Type Test here.
- Avoid sugar, grains, processed foods, chemicals, and artificial sweeteners. Sugar fuels the growth of cancer cells. Normalizing your insulin creates an environment that is unfriendly to cancer cells.
- Use organic coconut oil every day. Coconut oil is rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which offer a wide variety of health benefits and may also be effective in preventing or reversing cachexia.
- Avoid charring your meats. Charcoal or flame broiled meat is linked with increased cancer growth
- Avoid unfermented soy products. Unfermented soy is high in plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, also known as isoflavones. In some studies, soy appears to work in concert with human estrogen to increase cell proliferation, which increases mutations and cancerous cells.
- Drink a quart of organic green vegetable juice daily. Please review my juicing instructions for more detailed information about this.
- Avoid drinking alcohol, or at least limit your alcoholic drinks to one per day.
- Drink plenty of pure water every day.
- Get some sort of exercise daily. Exercise will help you maintain your muscle mass, thereby slowing down cachexia. Realizing cancer can really diminish your energy level, you may have to experiment a bit to find forms of exercise you can tolerate, but it is important to do it, nevertheless. Exercise has been proven to extend the lives of cancer patients.
- Avoid electromagnetic fields as much as possible. Minimize cell phone use, and make sure your cordless phone base station is as far from your sleeping area as possible. Keep medical radiation exposure as low as possible. Even electric blankets can increase your cancer risk.