A Fifth Pillar of Cancer Treatment: Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy + immunotherapy are the standard cancer treatments. Cutting edge science is developing another pillar – the ketogenic diet

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If you have cancer you can cut it out, burn it, drug it, train your immune cells to attack it, and now say leading scientists, we should soon be able to starve it to death.

The idea of starving a tumor by depriving it of glucose (sugar) – cancer cells, it turns out, are sugar addicts too – was the subject of a fascinating discussion this month with Columbia University oncologist Sid Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

The idea is simple enough and in fact dates back to the 1930s: Tumors need to consume huge amounts of glucose and in doing so they “convert to anabolic processes;” meaning they grow, multiply, and spread at an accelerated rate, essentially becoming cells on ‘steroids’ – the steroid being glucose.

So what Mukherjee and others have done is switch up fuel sources from carbohydrates (which break down into glucose) to healthy fats – “The ketogenic diet turned out to be the perfect approach” – thereby starving cancer cells of their vital energy source. With the result that tumors have not just stopped growing they’ve also shrunk & even died, and this has been the case across multiple tumor types and in a variety of animal models. Clinical trials with cancer patients have begun and Mukherjee is so confident in this approach he calls it the “fifth pillar” of cancer treatment – which would typically be used in conjunction with standard cancer drugs whose effectiveness it enhances thereby lowering costs, drug treatment times and dosages, and thus side effects.

The relevance of all this, for our purposes, is to underscore the value of nutrition for overall health and, in particular, the value of the ketogenic diet to the endocannabinoid system.

We addressed this in the post, To kick CBD up a notch, take it with healthy fats. Where Rachel Knox, MD, who practices cannabis medicine in Portland, counsels her patients that “nutrition comes first,” and follows that up with the proper use of plant cannabinoids such as CBD and THC. Moreover, that post referred to research showing that taking cannabidiol with healthy fats “can make a large difference in the amount of CBD that gets absorbed into the body.” 

Conversely, we recently looked at the addictive, debilitating, and brain-altering consequences of poor nutrition, i.e. the effects of ultra-processed foods.

Sid Mukherjee is a visionary and one way you can see that is in how he conceptualizes both ‘food’ and ‘drugs’ simply as different kinds of molecules. For instance, he describes the ketogenic approach to cancer therapy as using macromolecules – healthy fats, vs small molecules – your standard cancer drugs. Looked at that way, he says, you’re “pretending as if the diet is a drug,” or, put another way, “In this case the drug is a diet.”

‘Food,’ in other words, is medicine, too – exerting its action at the molecular level.

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