You and I were born on a planet circling a small star we call the sun, which shines on us quite frequently when we’re outdoors (except here in Seattle and a few other places). According to anthropologists and archaeologists, our remote ancestors were born in the very sunniest regions of this planet, and spent nearly all their days outdoors—although for most of that time, there were no doors to be “outdoors” of! And the Bible says the Garden of Eden was located in a sunny tropical area, too. Remember that in the beginning Adam and Eve didn’t even need to wear clothes?
Whether evolved or Created, this much is clear: as descendants of the original human inhabitants of planet Earth, our bodies are “built for sunshine”! In fact, unless we ignore our senses and allow ourselves to get sunburn, the sun is good for us!
Given these facts, it’s way past time for mainstream medicine (and sunscreen manufacturers) to give up their incessant mantra that “the sun is evil and will give you skin cancer” and start looking for the real cause of skin cancer. Very fortunately, a recent article by Dr. Niva Shapira in the journal Nutrition Reviews lays out the evidence in 7 1/2 pages (with an impressive 149 references). [Shapira N., Nutrition Reviews 2010; 68(2); 75-86] It points directly to the major culprit behind the large majority of skin cancers: poor diet!
Yes, we can now add another health problem to the long, impressive, list of poor-diet-related ailments and diseases. As Dr. Shapira outlines in the Nutrition Reviews article, poor diet—especially the Standard American Diet (very appropriately abbreviated “SAD”)—is the major contributor to skin cancer..
Location, location, location … or is it?
Did you know that Greece—yes, sunny Greece—has one of the lowest rates of the worst sort of skin cancer—melanoma—on this entire planet? But Greeks who emigrate to Australia and adopt “Western” diets (instead of the native Greek “Mediterranean” diet) develop a “Western” disease pattern—including more melanoma while, according to Dr. Shapira, “…adherence to a Mediterranean diet has been shown to [decrease] melanoma incidence and [increase] survival among populations in non-Mediterranean countries, such as the United States and Australia …”
Australians, on the other hand have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. As the author further writes, with proper scientific caution: “this suggests that the dietary benefits, as well as the disadvantages of non-adherence [to the Mediterranean diet], may be geographically transferable.” Translated to simpler English: “It’s not where you live, it’s what you eat that keeps you healthy—or lets you get sick.”
Not just melanoma, but all types of ultra-violet (UV) radiation- associated skin damage are much more strongly diminished by diet than location on the planet. What aspects of the Mediterranean diet appear to be the most protective? Fish and shellfish, tea, high consumption of vegetables (particularly carrots, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and others), high consumption of fruits (particularly citrus), and low alcohol consumption.
By contrast, dairy products, butter, red meat (more about this item later), and alcohol allow for significantly more ultra-violet-associated skin damage and cancer.
Your skin-cancer-busting arsenal
Although getting our nutrients from what we eat is always best, dietary supplementation can also protect us against UV-related skin damage and skin cancer. In the September 2006 issue of Nutrition & Healing, I told you about experiments done with rabbits at a university in Texas. The researchers fed two groups of rabbits a standard rabbit chow, but one group was given added vitamins C, E, and A, and the other group was not. All were then subjected to “intense” UV radiation for several hours daily. While 24 percent of the rabbit-chow-only group developed skin cancer, none of the vitamin-supplemented rabbits faced the same fate.
But this time let’s go beyond just vitamins C, A, and E, for a more extensive list of nutrients found to reduce UV-associated skin damage and cancer. Let’s start with:
Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene have been found to protect against UV-associated skin damage individually and as components of diet. One way they appear to do this is by quenching (cancelling out) the effects of free radicals, highly damaging molecules released by UV exposure. Beta-carotene specifically reduces melanoma risk, and works synergistically with vitamins C, A, and E for a “multiplier effect.” Along with fellow carotenoids lutein and lycopene, beta-carotene also significantly reduces the redness (“erythema”) caused by sunshine overexposure.
Lutein protects skin cells against both oxidative damage and genetic damage. UV-exposed skin protected with lutein actually shows less cell loss, less damage to the membranes of cells, and less damage to elastic tissues. Lutein also combats suppression of the immune system.
According to Dr. Shapira, one group of researchers found that that an oral lycopene supplement reduced the count of sunburned cells by 83 percent, as compared with people who took no lycopene and had the same duration of sun exposure. She cites another research group reporting a 40 percent reduction in sunshine-caused redness in individuals consuming just 16 milligrams of lycopene (found in 3 tablespoonsful of tomato paste or in many supplements) and 2 teaspoonsful of olive oil per day.
Beta-carotene is found in the highest concentrations in carrots, sweet potato, yams, pumpkin, spinach, kale, collard greens, and nearly any other yellow or orange vegetable. Lutein levels are exceptionally high in spinach and kale, and relatively high in peas, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, pistachios, broccoli, corn. Lycopene is the red pigment found in tomatoes, and is actually most bio-available from tomato paste, tomato sauce, and ketchup (sugar free, please). There’s also a high lycopene content in watermelon, pink guava, and papaya.
Next on the list are flavonoids and polyphenols, which have been found to protect against cancer formation induced by UV radiation. These include epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea, theaflavins and thearubins from black tea, caffeine (yes, that’s caffeine), flavonoids from citrus peel, proanthocyanidins, and other polyphenols from grape seeds, red wine, and cocoa.
EGCG reduces the frequency of gene mutation and aging in human skin fibroblasts (which make collagen in skin) exposed to both UV-A and UV-B over long periods of time. Black tea and green tea polyphenols both protect against UV-B tumors, with black tea polyphenols offering the best protection. One study showed that higher levels of tea consumption were associated with lower levels of both basal and squamous cell cancers.
Citrus peel flavonoids have been found to protect against squamous cell cancer, and when they’re combined with black tea, the protective effect is even greater. Polyphenols from cocoa significantly protected against UV induced erythema, although the effect was found to be less protective than that of lycopene.
Resveratrol, proanthocyanidins, and polyphenols (all found in red grapes) each inhibit skin cancer induced by UV. And, like citrus peel flavonoids and black tea, they work even better when they’re used together. These nutrients have all been found to work by helping conserve internally produced antioxidant enzymes and glutathione (a major antioxidant), suppress the oxidative effects of internally produced peroxide and nitric oxide, and inhibit UV-induced cell death.
In addition to the foods noted above, many herbs, spices, and seasonings—including rosemary, oregano, thyme, and garlic—are rich in polyphenols that protect against UV radiation.
Next up is one of the vitamins we discussed in the previous article about natural skin cancer protection: vitamin C. This nutrient significantly reduces the decline in glutathione, glutathione peroxidase and SOD (superoxide dismutase, another important internally-produced antioxidant) induced by UV. Vitamin C works with beta-carotene to reduce UV-induced erythema, and protects against adverse effects of UV on DNA.
Then we have vitamin E (as mixed tocopherols), which protects against UV-induced DNA damage, lipid peroxidation (oxidation damage to fats and oils), and cancerous changes. Vitamin E also protects many other nutrients against oxidation, including beta-carotene and lycopene.
B-vitamins also offer protection against skin cancer. One thing to be aware of, though—vitamin B2 (riboflavin) actually might make UV risk greater for skin cells. However, if vitamin C levels are high (supplements are usually necessary in addition to what’s contained in food), this effect of vitamin B2 is significantly reduced. But other B-vitamins are protective against UV damage, including methylfolate (a very active form of folate/folic acid), which inhibits UV-induced breaks in DNA. Folate is extremely sensitive to breakdown by UV, so if you’re exposed to more than a little sun, consider using a methylfolate supplement, as folate in food breaks down more rapidly than nearly any other nutrient.
Rounding out our list are fish oil and olive oil. Fish oil (which is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids) significantly reduces UV-induced suppression of the immune system and cancer induction. By contrast, omega-6 fatty acids (the highest amounts of which are found in vegetable oils) are associated with UV-induced DNA damage and tumor growth. Population studies show a trend toward lower risk of squamous cell cancers and melanoma with higher ratios of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids.
Olive oil, which is high in omega-9 and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, helps slow signs of skin aging and protects against skin cancers. It also contains the antioxidants oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol, which protect against UV-induced pro-cancerous activity.
Put away the sunscreen
As we’ve established numerous times over the years—and as Dr. Shapira’s recent article re-affirms—staying out of the sun isn’t your best protection against skin cancer. In fact, it could do more harm than good…
As Dr. Michael Holick (professor of Medicine, Dermatology, Physiology, and Biophysics at Boston University Medical Center) has written, for every case of skin cancer eliminated by sun avoidance, there are 20 or more cases of prostate or breast cancer caused by sun avoidance and the ensuing lack of sun-induced vitamin D.
One other note: If you want to minimize your risk of skin cancer, don’t use sunscreen. Studies show that skin-cancer risk and sunscreen use have risen together nearly in “lockstep.” While this doesn’t prove that sunscreen causes skin cancers (although there are preliminary indications that this is a possibility), it does show that sunscreen doesn’t prevent skin cancer.
That said, you should, of course, use common sense! If you or your children have had enough sun—and your body will tell you that when your skin begins to turn even slightly pink—head for the shade, cover up with clothing, or use sunscreen ONLY at that point.
But your best bet for minimizing your risk of skin cancer is simply to eat right! Eat fish; olives and olive oil; tea; tomatoes, tomato paste, and sauce; carrots; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and others; peas; sweet potatoes and yams; pumpkin; spinach, kale, and collard greens; and fruit, particularly citrus, red grapes, watermelon, guava, and papaya; as well as cocoa (no sugar, please, try stevia instead) and rosemary, oregano, thyme, and garlic. And for added “insurance,” a supplement containing the nutrients listed above is a good idea, too.
Think you can’t enjoy red meat? Think again!
Like many other researchers, Dr. Shapira reports that eating red meat is not the best nutrition because it increases the risk of skin cancer. But that’s not necessarily true. The exception to this general rule is eating the only type of red meat generally available for literally hundreds of thousands of years—free-range and grass-fed meat.
It’s another case of “Copy Nature” … humans have been eating free-range, grass- (and no doubt weed-) fed red meat without increasing cardiovascular disease—or skin cancer—risk for hundreds of thousands of years! Only since grain feeding cattle became very widespread (starting in the 19th century) has red meat become a positive health hazard.
Several studies have shown that free-range and grass-fed red meat—mostly beef, but also bison, deer, elk, and other “wild game”—has a much more favorable omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid ratio than grain-fed beef, even organically-raised antibiotic- and added-hormone-free grain-fed organic beef. The more favorable the omega 3/omega-6 ratio, the less inflammation is induced.
-Jonathan V. Wright, MD