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Can Ketogenic Diets Fight Cancer?

Cancer is a collection of related diseases, where the cells in your body begin to divide at an abnormal rate.

This allows old and damaged cells to survive (when they should normally die) and new cells are formed that aren't needed.

The extra growth of cells can form tumors.

A ketogenic diet is high in fat, low in carbohydrates and has an average amount of protein. The fat and carbs act as your body's main source of energy.

Doctors have been using this diet for years to help ease epilepsy, and now researchers are looking into seeing if this diet can help fight cancer.

Researchers from the University of South Florida found a combination of oxygen therapy and the ketogenic diet stopped the spread of cancer cells in mice and increased their survival.

What were the other results of this study?

Listen in and join Dr. Mike as he discusses the latest research surrounding a ketogenic diet.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: June 17, 2015
Host: Mike Smith, MD

Living longer and staying healthier. It's Healthy Talk with Dr. Michael Smith, MD. Here's your host, Dr. Mike.

DR MIKE: I have a couple of good friends that are fighting cancer right now. One friend of mine has liver cancer and another one has colon cancer. I came across a really nice article written by my friend Maylin Paez, who also is at Life Extension, and you can read the full article at She's writing about a type of diet that might be able to play a major role in helping people fight cancer and that is the ketogenic diet.
So, what is a ketogenic diet?

Well, the main source of energy for your body, especially the brain, are carbohydrates, right? The carbs, even the complex ones, eventually are all broken down into the simple sugars like glucose and that should mean glucose is your main energy source.

The body is really kind of geared, the cells are really kind of geared, to run off carbs. But if you limit the amount of carbs coming in, it forces the body to use a different source and the main source it will use are fats. When you break down fats to burn as energy, you produce these ketones that are called ketone bodies. The brain can run off these ketone bodies from the breakdown of fat and so can muscle cells and pretty much everything in your body. It's not the preferred source but it works.

It's the whole basis of say, the Atkins diet or even the South Beach diet in which you limit carbs, you burn more fat, that kind of stuff. But if you really limit the carbs, you will produce a lot of these ketone bodies because you're breaking down so much fat and that's where the word ketogenic diet comes from.

This diet initially was used to treat epilepsy, a seizure disorder, with some success. It kind of fell out of favor not because it wasn't working but because the anti-convulsant drugs came out in the market and so those were being prescribed for epilepsy. The anti-convulsant drugs are not perfect but the benefit-risk analysis for those drugs is actually pretty good. So, the ketogenic diet just kind of fell out of favor a little bit and people are being prescribed the anti-convulsants. The anti-convulsants do work better in controlling seizures than the ketogenic diet.

But the ketogenic diet does work for epilepsy a little bit. In some cases it can be quite dramatic. There's always these case reports of people going on a ketogenic diets and eliminating their seizure disorders but those are rare. It just helps to control it.
But now what we're seeing is an appreciation of the fact that cancer cells are obviously dividing like crazy. That's what a cancer cell does. It just divides, divides, divides.

So, because it's dividing so much, there is this new appreciation for how metabolically active a cancer cell is. So, obviously, a cancer cell needs a lot of energy to do this, to do this growth process, and it needs a lot of carbs, a lot of glucose. So the theory is pretty straightforward. If you limit the amount of carbs or ultimately the simple sugar is glucose, for instance, that a cancer cell can use; if you limit that supply, maybe you could hamper the growth of the cancer a little bit. That's the theory at least.

Some researchers from the University of South Florida wanted to test this theory. If we place cancer patients on a ketogenic diet, limit the carbs as a fuel source for the cancer cells, does that decrease cancer cell growth? And that's what they wanted to look at. Now, I have to set this up a little bit because they did something else in this study as well.

By the way, this study was published in a peer reviewed publication, the PLoS ONE--that's the Public Library of Science One in June 2013. Again, from the University of South Florida. So, the headline following the results of this study was this: Mice--so it was a mouse study, an animal model. Mice with metastatic cancer on a ketogenic diet lived 78% longer.

So, the South Florida researchers took mice who had cancer; not just cancer but, essentially, had Stage IV cancer--cancer that was already spreading throughout the body. Pretty sick mice, right? And they were fed a standard diet called the control or a ketogenic diet. So, there were two broad groups.

So, all the mice had metastatic disease. Half were placed just on a regular mouse diet and the other half placed on a ketogenic diet. Now, each group was further randomized to receive or not receive oxygen therapy as well. It's believed that a lack of oxygen is thought to fuel cancer growth. I have to explain that, I think, a little bit too. So, a lack of oxygen is thought to fuel cancer growth. Why would that be? Well, because cancer cells are cells that are less and less specialized. They kind of use real simple systems to create energy. See, a normal cell uses a lot of a oxygen.

It's called cellular respiration. You've got your glucose, you have your oxygen and you produce a lot of ATP and that's where the mitochondria enter it. Cancer cells have an ability to make a lot of energy without oxygen. It's called glycolysis. They need a lot of glucose to do this but they don't need a lot of oxygen. So, in a situation where there is a lot of carbs, less oxygen, that's like a perfect storm for cancer growth. Lot of carbs, less oxygen.

Let's look at how they studied this then. They had some of the mice, basically a quarter of the mice on a standard diet. They had a quarter of the mice on a standard diet plus oxygen. They had a quarter of the mice on a ketogenic diet and then a quarter of the mice on a ketogenic diet with oxygen. Then, they analyzed tumor growth using what is known as a bioluminescent technology. So, they can actually see the tumor grow throughout the body.

Here's what they found. Mice on a ketogenic diet--so we're limiting the amount of carbs, making them use fat, hopefully, starving those cancer cells--mice on a ketogenic diet lived 56% longer. That's huge. Here's where it got interesting. Mice on a ketogenic diet and oxygen, calming down that perfect storm for cell cancer growth. Calming down that storm. Ketogenic diet plus oxygen, the mice lived 78% longer.

So, again, how does this work? Well, the premise behind the ketogenic diet is that sugar is the primary source of energy for cancer cells. So, if we deprive the body of sugar, if we deprive the cancer cells of sugar, they kind of starve and they can't grow as well. There isn't much research examining this effect, the ketogenic diet, on cancer in humans.

I think we need now to take this animal model and maybe start doing some small pilot studies in humans with different types of cancers to see exactly what kind of effects we could see. I know right now, there's a lot of interest in using a ketogenic diet in really aggressive cancers like melanomas. They spread very easy--glioblastoma which is brain cancer and which spreads really easy--so in those kind of cases.

Again, the ketogenic diet is not replacing different types of therapies for cancers, both natural and conventional. The ketogenic diet just may be used in conjunction with those medicines and supplements and hopefully will get a pretty awesome result. The typical ketogenic diet it's not easy to follow but if you're in a Stage IV situation with a brain tumor, you might be more prone to stick to a tough diet than someone who's not sick.

So, the ketogenic diet is something that I find interesting. I think that this offers a lot of hope for people. If you know somebody with a cancer like my friends, I think you should share this research. I'm going to share it with them, and really suggest talking to their doctor about a ketogenic diet.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.