What Does Your Garden Grow? Diet, Exercise, and Cancer


A few years ago, I attended the 17th Functional Medicine Symposium in San Diego, entitled Cancer as a Chronic Disease. After steeping for four days in research regarding 5-year survival rates and treatment protocols, it could have been a major downer.

But no! I’m actually as excited about the role of diet and excercise in preventing and even treating cancer now than I have ever been. An increasing body of evidence over the last 20 years shows that regular moderate exercise (like walking three or more hours weekly) combined with diets high in vegetables, fruit, fiber and good fats, greatly decreases your chances of developing cancer. Studies further show that even after a cancer diagnosis, people who develop these good habits live, on average, two to three times longer than people who don’t.

Anyone who has been to my home/office knows that I am, to say the least, an enthusiastic gardener. The studies and information that were presented over the last 4 days have proven to me that there are many similarities between the soil of a garden or farm, and the ‘terrain’, the cellular landscape, of our bodies.

In their enlightenng book, Teaming With Microbes,, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis shed light on the many trillions of microorganisms present in every teaspoon of good garden soil. Bacteria, fungi, paramecia and many other diverse species create an unbelievably complex web of cooperative life that results in plants that have easy access to nutrients of all kinds. What you end up with is a garden that is a healthy organism, a living ecosystem.

A few years ago I decided to add a few garden beds (one of the signs of an obsessed gardener), and made the mistake of having a load of soil brought up from town. A few weeks later, the kale I planted was absolutely engulfed by a horde of bugs I’d never seen in my garden before. What’s more, they quickly spread, albeit in smaller numbers, to my other established beds.

So, of course, not being a pesticide type of guy, I had to come up with Plan B. What I did was pull every one of those kale plants and tossed them in the compost heap, and within 3 days, with no other intervention on my part, all the uninvited bugs, even the ones in the other parts of my garden, disappeared.

The problem was that the new dirt was bad stuff, and I spent a year working to balance it before I tried another crop, which did fine.

The body, it turns out, works the same way. Cellular terrain that is well oxygenated from regular moderate exercise, and well-supplied with a diverse array of macro- and micro-nutrients from a healthy diet, resists the formation and proliferation of cancer cells.

Your body produces 100-1000 cancer cells every day. Every day. Whether those cells get rounded up and eliminated by your immune system, or set up shop and create a tumor depends largely on the health of your tissues at the micro and macro levels.

Cancer cells thrive in an oxygen-depleted environment. Regular moderate exercise causes us to grow thousands of miles of capillaries, those tiny blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to our tissues. Many recent studies have shown that people with cancer who excercise are 2-3 times less likely to die of their disease.

As a cancerous tumor grows, it produces copious amounts of chemical messengers called cytokines which are similar to the ones that are produced by flu viruses. These make us feel rotten, sapping our strength and making us want to be even more sedentary. This is the downward spiral of a sprouting cancer– it starts with low-oxygen, nutrient-starved tissues. Then a cancer cell forms and flourishes, because the cellular environment favors it, just like in my crummy-soil garden bed. Then the growing tumor secretes stuff to keep its environment favorable to its further progression. When looked at this way, we can begin to see that we have an enormous amount of control over our health.

So what about those people who seem so healthy, and then one day they go in for a checkup and find out they have cancer? It turns out that there are a number of different factors that influence the formation of cancers, including exposure to toxins and our body’s ability to eliminate them. But the good news is that in all cases, diet and exercise has an enormous positive effect on our ability to prevent and treat these and many other diseases. So eat well! This means eating a lot of vegetables--probably more than you're eating now. And exercise moderately, like brisk walking 3-5 times weekly. People who exercise really intensely, like those who do Crossfit or Boot Camp, are probably doing themselves no favor in this regard, as intense exercise is largely anaerobic, which is not especially helpful in regard to oxygenating tissues. Pretty simple: Eat well and exercise!

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