We hear all the time how a balanced and healthy diet should contain the right amount of nutrients and micronutrients. We know that vitamins are an essential part of our diet, but how essential are they and what difference do they really make? Beyond maintaining optimal health, can they actually prevent cancer or is it just a marketing gimmick promoting them as anti-cancer agents?
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are organic compounds that play the role of enzymes and coenzymes in the normal functioning of several processes of metabolism and immunity. They are essential for the growth and development and can be categorized as water soluble or fat soluble depending on whether they need water or fat for their absorption from food.
There are three important points to remember about vitamins:
- They are naturally present in food
- They play a key role in many normal physiological functions, which includes growth and development
- Lack of vitamins in the diet causes specific deficiencies. Even a minor deficiency can cause permanent damage during development
Vitamins and Cancer
Cancer is a malignant, uncontrolled growth of cells that can occur due to various reasons and risk factors. However, one underlying factor that is common among almost all cancers is the high rate of production of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). Several studies have established a strong link between ROS and cancer.
Furthermore, researchers have found evidence that vitamins act as antioxidants and have apoptotic, antiangiogenic, and inhibitory effects against metastasis in cancer cells. Mainly, Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Vitamin E have shown to be involved in either prevention of cancer or in ameliorating the side effects occurring during chemotherapy and radiation therapy, thus helping in cancer treatment.
- Also known as ascorbic acid, this vitamin is commonly found in citrus fruits and green-red-yellow vegetables. It is one of the most researched vitamins for its effects on cancer treatment and prevention.
- Vitamin C is widely recognized as a powerful antioxidant, i.e., it helps to eliminate ROS, which are elevated in most cancers. A tumor generally grows under low or no-oxygen conditions.
- Research conducted by Johns Hopkins investigators showed that this antioxidant vitamin played a critical role by destabilizing the tumor’s ability to grow under oxygen starved conditions.
- Thus, vitamin C supplementation and vitamin C derived from food has shown to have preventive and therapeutic effects on several types of cancers including that of the esophagus, larynx, oral cavity, and pancreas.
- Many other forms of cancers including stomach, rectum, breast, and cervix have shown to benefit from vitamin C supplementation.
- This is commonly known as the sunshine vitamin as sun-rays are the main source of production of vitamin D from our skin.
- Unlike other vitamins, this is a prohormone, i.e. it is not hormonally active by itself but is converted into the active hormone by further reactions in the body. Vitamin D is important for strong bones and teeth as it helps the body absorb and use calcium and phosphorus from food we consume.
- Researchers have found that persons with higher vitamin D blood levels are at a lower risk of certain types of cancers, such as colorectal, pancreatic, breast, and prostate.
- Laboratory research shows that vitamin D has anti-tumor properties as they regulate genes that are involved in the multiplication and spread of cancer.
- Individuals with below average vitamin D levels (below 24 ng/mL) are at three times higher risk of developing stage III cancer, compared to individuals with high levels of blood vitamin D.
- Vitamin E is a collective term for 8 fat-soluble anti-oxidants. These include alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocopherol; and alpha-, beta-, gamma- and delta-tocotrienol.
- This vitamin is only produced by plants and is found in abundance in plant oil.
- Being an anti-oxidant it prevents the production of ROS. It prevents the DNA damage caused by ROS, which in turn prevents mutations, and thus, has been identified to play an important role in cancer prevention.
- Research studies have found vitamin E to reduce the risk of prostate, colon, and lung cancers.
- Particularly, individuals with Cowden Syndrome experience tremendous benefits with vitamin E supplementation. These patients are at an 85% lifetime risk of breast cancer and 35% risk of thyroid cancer. Giving these patients vitamin E supplementation is suggested to slow or also stop the cell damage that leads to cancer.
- The anti-oxidant property of vitamin E can also help patients undergoing chemotherapy as it can reduce the free radical damage.
Having a healthy diet replete with vitamins is the key to healthy life. A well-balanced diet will give you all the nutrients and micronutrients you need. Don’t forget that a 10 minute early morning stroll out in the sunshine is all it takes to get your vitamin D levels up.
However, before rushing to the pharmacy for vitamin supplements, remember that there isn’t enough research to say that stocking up on vitamins will increase your lifespan and general health, unless you are actually deficient in any one specific vitamin.
Going by what functional medicine says about vitamins for health is that naturally consuming higher amounts of vitamin through foods is better than popping pills.
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