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Natural Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer

By Dr. Jonathan V. Wright

At present, we all live on planet Earth, which circles a small star—the Sun—which shines on us very often when we’re outdoors (except here in Seattle and a few other places). Anthropologists and archaeologists have found that our remote ancestors were born in the very sunniest regions of this Earth, and spent nearly all their days outdoors—although, for most of that time, there were no doors to be “outdoors” of!

The Bible says the Garden of Eden was in a sunny tropical area, too. 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 the sunshine”! The sun is actually good for us unless we ignore our senses and allow ourselves to get sunburn.

It’s summer here in Seattle and likely you’ve been hearing you should cover yourself and your family with SPF-maximum sunscreen so you won’t “get cancer.”

Think about it—have you seen proof that sunscreens actually prevent skin cancer? Where are all the TV commercials showing that more sunscreen use leads to less cancer? In fact, the situation is just the opposite. In the 1920s, well before sunscreen use “took off,” skin cancer incidence was low. If you draw a line on a chart following the rise in skin cancer in these United States since the 1920s, you’ll see steady upward progress every year, every decade . . . which also precisely describes the growth in the use of sunscreen! The two lines parallel each other on the chart!

No, a chart showing “more sunscreen use, more skin cancer” doesn’t prove that sunscreens cause cancer—it could be a coincidence, for example, or both could be caused by some third factor—but it suggests that sunscreens really don’t prevent much skin cancer at all.

Let’s look for the real cause of most skin cancers. Dr. Niva Shapira has given us the facts to do that! Nutrition Reviews[1] published her research review—7½ pages, with an impressive 149 references—which point directly to the major culprit behind the large majority of skin cancers: poor diet! Yes, there’s yet another health problem to add to the long, impressive, list of poor-diet-related ailments and diseases.

Greece—yes, sunny Greece—has one of the lowest rates of the worst sort of skin cancer—melanoma—on planet Earth. But Greeks who emigrate to Australia and transition to a “Western” diet (instead of the native Greek “Mediterranean” diet) develop a “Western” disease pattern—including very much more melanoma. Dr. Shapira writes:

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.

By contrast, Australians of Greek ethnic background who consume the “standard Australian diet” (SAD) which is just as bad as the “standard American diet” (also SAD) have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. Dr. Shapira tells us, “This suggests that the dietary benefits, as well as the disadvantages of non-adherence [to the 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 contributes to illness”.

What aspects of the Mediterranean diet appear to be the most protective? Fish, shellfish, high consumption of vegetables (particularly carrots, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and others), fruits (particularly citrus), tea, and low alcohol consumption. By contrast, dairy products, butter, and alcohol allow for significantly more ultra-violet-associated skin damage and cancer.

While getting our nutrients from what we eat is always best, supplements can also protect against UV-related skin damage and skin cancer. In an experiment at the Baylor College of Medicine, two groups of rabbits were regularly exposed to ultraviolet light. One group was given a “balanced diet” but no vitamins, while the other group was given the same diet with added vitamins C, A, and E. After twenty-four weeks, none of the animals in the diet-plus-vitamins group had developed skin cancer, while 24% of the animals in the diet-alone group had developed skin cancer.[2]

In addition to vitamins C, A, and E, there’s a more extensive list of nutrients found to reduce UV-associated skin damage and cancer. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene have been found to protect against UV-associated skin damage individually and as components of the diet. These three carotenoids also reduce the degree of skin redness associated with sunshine overexposure.

Beta-carotene specifically reduces melanoma risk, and works together with vitamins C, A, and E for a “multiplier effect.” 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. Lycopene content of skin is directly associated with skin roughness: more lycopene less skin roughness; less lycopene in the skin, more skin roughness.[3]

According to Dr. Shapira, one group of researchers found that an oral lycopene supplement reduced the count of sunburned cells by 83% compared with no lycopene intake for the same duration of sun exposure. She cites another research group reporting a 40% reduction in sunshine-caused redness in individuals consuming just 16 mg of lycopene (found in three tablespoonsful of tomato paste or in many supplements) and two teaspoons-full of olive oil per day.

Beta-carotene is found in the highest concentrations in carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, 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, and corn. Lycopene is the red pigment found in tomatoes and is actually most bioavailable 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 of protectors against UV damage are flavonoids and polyphenols, which have been found specifically 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, caffeine), flavonoids from citrus peel, proanthocyanidins, and other polyphenols from grape seeds, red wine, and cocoa.

EGCG reduces gene mutation frequency and aging in human skin fibroblasts (collagen producers in the 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.

Almost all B vitamins offer protection against skin cancer. However, vitamin B2 (riboflavin) actually might make UV risk greater for skin cells unless vitamin C is supplemented. But other B vitamins are protective against UV damage, including methyl folate (the most active and preferable form of folate), 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 methyl folate supplement, as folate in food breaks down more rapidly than nearly any other nutrient.

Last on the list (for now) are fish oil and olive oil. Fish oil (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. 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 monounsaturated fatty acids, helps slow signs of skin aging and protects against skin cancers. It also contains the antioxidants hydroxytyrosol and oleuropein, which protect against UV-induced pro-cancerous activity.

Dr. Shapira’s article reaffirms that staying out of the sun is not at all your best protection against skin cancer. In fact, it could do more harm than good. Dr. Michael Holick (Professor of Medicine, Dermatology, Physiology, and Biophysics at Boston University Medical Center) has written that for every case of skin cancer eliminated by sun avoidance, there are twenty or more cases of prostate or breast cancer caused by sun avoidance and the ensuing lack of sun-induced vitamin D.

Once again: If you want to minimize your risk of skin cancer, don’t bother to use sunscreen. Studies show that since the 1920s, skin-cancer risk and sunscreen use have risen together at nearly the same rate! 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.

Use common sense! If you or your children have had enough sun—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 (natural only is preferred, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide rather than chemically active ingredients) at that point.

But your best bet for minimizing skin cancer risk is simply to eat right! Eat fish; cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and others; olives and olive oil; tea; tomatoes, tomato paste, and sauce; carrots; peas; sweet potatoes and yams; pumpkin; spinach, kale, and collard greens; 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. When at all possible, choose organic!

While eating and drinking all of these things will likely minimize your risk of skin cancer, if you want “insurance” (especially during the sunny months in your area) you might consider a specific combination supplement based on Dr. Shapira’s research which contains all or some of the types of nutrients listed above.

Excerpted from Dr. Wright’sGreen Medicine Newsletter”, www.GreenMedicineNewsletter.com.


[1]  Shapira N. “Nutritional approach to sun protection: a suggested complement to external strategies.”Nutr Rev 2010; 68(2);75-86

[2]  Black H S. “Effects of dietary anti-oxidants on actinic tumor induction.”Res CommChemPath Pharmacol 1974;7:783

[3]  DarvinM(1), et al. “Cutaneous concentration of lycopene correlates significantly with the roughness of the skin.”Eur J Pharm Biopharm. 2008 Aug;69(3):943-7


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