Treating Advanced Prostate Cancer with Diet

Dr. Dean Ornish showed that a plant-based diet and lifestyle program could apparently reverse the progression of prostate cancer for early stage, localized, watch-and-wait cancer. What about for more advanced stage life-threatening disease?

Dr. Dean Ornish showed that a plant-based diet and lifestyle program could apparently reverse the progression of prostate cancer by making men’s bloodstreams nearly eight times better at suppressing cancer cell growth. But this was for early-stage, localized, watch-and-wait prostate cancer.

What about for more advanced-stage, life-threatening disease? There have been sporadic case reports in the literature suggesting benefit. For example, a man with extensive metastatic disease who had been given about three years to live went on a strict plant-based diet. Four years later, it appeared the cancer had disappeared. After six years, he got a little too comfortable, backslid a bit on the diet and began eating “turkey, tuna fish, and chicken,” then the cancer came raging back and he died. But that could have been a total coincidence. That’s the problem with case reports, which are kind of glorified anecdotes. You have no idea how representative the outcome is unless it’s studied formally. But, throughout the 20th century, all we had were these kinds of case reports for more advanced prostate cancer until 2001.

We had “preliminary evidence” based on all the case reports that “prostate cancer may be sensitive to diet even after metastasis develops. Plant-based diets may be associated with prolonged survival and instances of remission of bone metastasis in men with advanced disease.” So, researchers decided to put it to the test in a four-month intervention. They thought that too much saturated fat, too little fiber, and too much meat may be the biggest players in tumor promotion and progression, so they put people on a whole food plant-based diet of whole grains, beans, seeds, and fruits. Figuring this would be quite the departure from their regular diet, the researchers included a stress reduction component in hopes of improving dietary compliance.

Who were the subjects? The ten men in the study didn’t just have prostate cancer—they had all undergone a radical prostatectomy to remove their primary tumor and then subsequently had increasing PSA levels, indicative of probable metastatic disease. PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen. It’s only made by prostate cells, but the ten men had just had their entire prostates removed so their levels should have been zero. The fact that they not only still had some PSA, but that it was rising suggests that the surgery had failed, and the cancer had spread and was making a comeback.

At 2:43 in my video Treating Advanced Prostate Cancer with Diet: Part 1, you can view a graph showing the PSA levels for each of the men before the study began and see the speed at which their PSAs went up. If their PSA trajectories had stayed the same after four months of eating healthfully, it would mean the diet had had no effect. In that case, presumably, the cancer would have still been powering away and spreading just as fast as before. Instead, in two of the men, it looked as if the cancer had accelerated and grew even faster, but in the other eight men, the intervention appeared to work, apparently slowing down cancer growth. And, in three of the ten men, it didn’t just slow or stop, but appeared to reverse and shrink.

Why the different responses? Well, in the Ornish study, the more people complied with the diet and lifestyle recommendations, the better they did, as you can see at 3:31 in my video. Dietary changes only work if you actually do them. Just because you tell people to start eating a whole food plant-based diet, doesn’t mean patients actually do it. One can use fiber intake as a proxy for dietary compliance because all whole plant foods have fiber, and Ornish’s patients about doubled their fiber intake from 31 grams to 59 grams.

How did the ten men in the 2001 study do? They started out even worse, averaging 14 grams of fiber a day, and only made it up to 19 grams a day. That’s not a whole food plant-based diet—that doesn’t even meet the recommended minimum daily intake. As you can see at 4:18 in my video, only four of the ten men even increased their fiber intake at all, so that may explain the different responses. In fact, the man whose fiber improved the most had the best PSA result, and the man whose fiber intake dropped the most had the worst PSA result. Indeed, it appears the more changes they made to their diet, the better their results.

The researchers concluded that “a plant-based diet delivered in the context of MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction]…may slow the rate of tumor progression,” and, unlike other treatments, may give patients some control over their disease. And, as Ornish pointed out, “the only side effects are beneficial ones.”

Dr. Ornish and colleagues were able to show an apparent reversal in the progression of early-stage, localized prostate cancer with a plant-based diet and lifestyle program, and researchers at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere showed a similar diet may help slow the progression of even advanced prostate cancer over a period of four months.

How about over six months? As I discuss in my video Treating Advanced Prostate Cancer with Diet: Part 2, researchers at University of California, San Diego put cancer patients through the same protocol as the four-month study. Once again, these were patients who had already been treated for invasive prostate cancer by either radical prostatectomy or radiation therapy, yet still had rising PSA levels, suggesting the treatment didn’t work and the cancer was on the move. “In those who have undergone a [cancer] recurrence, PSA typically tends to rise exponentially after prostatectomy or radiation therapy, reflecting the gradual, inexorable growth of the cancer in the body. After local treatment, the rate of PSA rise is the single best predictor of…development of overt metastatic disease, as well as of overall survival.” The next step would be hormonal therapy, which is chemical or surgical castration, but that has a list of side effects, including loss of libido, sexual function, strength, and vitality. “Therefore, many physicians employ a strategy of active surveillance” and try to hold off for as long as possible. If we’re just waiting, why not give diet a try?

Patients were “taught to increase intake of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes and to decrease meat, dairy, and refined carbohydrates.” Of all possible lifestyle interventions, why a whole food plant-based diet? If you look around the world, there are huge differences in prostate cancer rates, as you can see at 1:42 in my video, and our We’re #1! USA! USA! rates are up to a hundred times higher than some places in Asia, for example—and it’s not just genetic. Within one generation of migrating to the United States, cancer rates shoot up, and the grandkids of the immigrants end up with the same top-of-the-pile “approximate US rates.” A whole range of lifestyle factors have been looked at, but diet appears to have the greatest influence.

Specifically, “consumption of meat and dairy appears to increase risk, and consumption of plant-based foods appears to decrease risk.” Hence, the plant-based diet. A possible mechanism found in both meat and dairy products is arachidonic acid, an inflammatory compound that we make from omega-6-rich oils, like corn, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed oils. It also comes “preformed” in animal-based foods and, in the American diet, is found particularly in chicken and eggs. In a petri dish, arachidonic acid appears to stimulate prostate cancer cell growth as much 200 percent, as you can see at 2:43 in my video.

So what happened when those researchers at University of California, San Diego asked men to remove processed and animal foods from their diet for six months? At 2:57 in my video, you can see a graph showing how fast the cancer patients’ PSA levels had been rising before starting the study. “In the absence of treatment, absolute levels of PSA tend to increase exponentially,” but upon eating more healthfully, nine of the ten study subjects showed an apparent slowing of cancer growth and four of the nine showed an apparent reversal in cancer growth. The average doubling time, an estimate of how long it would take for their cancer to double in size, slowed from doubling every year to closer to every ten years.

Other studies have used various diets and nutritional interventions, like vitamin supplements, but none has worked as well as this one—and the subjects’ compliance wasn’t even all that great. As you can see at 3:41 in my video, they did well in boosting their whole grain consumption in the first three months, but then backslid a bit, and they ate more vegetables, including a serving of greens, and an extra serving of fruit, at least early on. And, in the beginning, they at least ate one whole serving of legumes a day. So the researchers “did observe some [dietary] recidivism by 6 months,” with subjects sliding back into old habits. Given that, they checked to see if the study participants were better able to beat off the disease during that earlier period. And, indeed, at the end of the first three months, on average, there was PSA reversal. “Changes in the rate of rise in PSA, an indicator of disease progression, were in the opposite direction as changes in the intake of plant-based food groups, raising the provocative possibility that PSA may have inversely tracked intake of these foods and suggesting that adoption of a plant-based diet may have therapeutic potential in the management of this condition.”

Their findings suggest that, without further surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, disease progression can be slowed or even reversed, despite “the prevailing scientific consensus…that cancer progression is largely irreversible.” The researchers state their “findings do not refute the benefits of standard therapies or guarantee that a plant-based diet and stress reduction will always induce remission,” but their results “do contribute to a growing [medical] literature that suggests that in at least some circumstances, cancer may be partly reversible and that modification of dietary and lifestyle factors may be able to help prevent disease spread”—all without getting their testicles cut off.

Hold on. We can make men’s bloodstreams nearly eight times better at suppressing cancer cell growth? See How Not to Die from Cancer.

It’s not all or nothing, though. Any movement we make towards healthy eating may help. See Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio .


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In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How to Get the Benefits of Aspirin Without the Risks

For people without a personal history of cardiovascular disease, aspirin’s risks may outweigh its benefits, but aspirin may have additional benefits. “We have long recognized the preventative role of daily aspirin for patients with atherosclerotic [heart] disease; however, it now appears that we can hatch 2 birds from 1 egg. Daily low-dose aspirin may help prevent certain forms of cancer, as well, as I discuss in my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Cancer? In an analysis of eight different studies involving more than 25,000 people, “the authors found a 20 percent decrease in risk of death from cancer among those randomized to daily aspirin…” The researchers wrote, “[T]he search for the most efficacious and safe treatments for malignant disease remains an enormous and burdensome challenge. If only we could just stop cancer in its tracks—prevent it before it strikes. Perhaps we can.” Indeed, perhaps we can with salicylic acid, the plant phytonutrient that’s marketed as aspirin.

How does aspirin affect cancer? The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to the team who discovered how aspirin works. Enzymes named COX (cyclooxygenase) take the pro-inflammatory, omega-6, fatty-acid arachidonic acid our body makes or we get directly in our diet (primarily from eating chicken and eggs), and turns it into inflammatory mediators, such as thromboxane, which produces thrombosis (clots), and prostaglandins, which cause inflammation. Aspirin suppresses these COX enzymes. Less thromboxane means fewer clots, and less prostaglandin means less pain, swelling, and fever. However, prostaglandins can also dilate the lymphatic vessels inside tumors, allowing cancer cells to spread. So, one way cancer tries to kill us is by boosting COX activity.

We think one way aspirin can prevent cancer is by counteracting the tumor’s attempts to pry open the lymphatic bars on its cage and spread throughout the body. Indeed, reduction in mortality due to some cancers occurred within two to three years after aspirin was started. That seems too quick to be accounted for by an effect only on tumor formation . Cancer can take decades to develop, so the only way aspirin could work that fast is by suppressing the growth and spread of tumors that already exist. Aspirin appeared to cut the risk of metastases in half, particularly for adenocarcinomas, like colon cancer.

Given this, should we all take a daily baby aspirin? Previous risk-benefit analyses did not consider the effects of aspirin on cancer, instead just balancing cardiovascular benefits with bleeding risks, but these new cancer findings may change things.

If daily aspirin use were only associated with a reduction of colon cancer risk, then the benefits might not outweigh the harms for the general population, but we now have evidence that it works against other cancers, too. “[E]ven a 10% reduction in overall cancer incidence…could tip the balance” in favor of benefits over risks.

How does the cancer benefit compare? We know that using aspirin in healthy people just for cardiovascular protection is kind of a wash, but, by contrast, the cancer prevention rates might save twice as many lives, so the benefits may outweigh the risks. If we put it all together—heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and bleeding—aspirin comes out as protective overall, potentially extending our lifespan. There is a higher risk of major bleeding even on low-dose aspirin, but there are fewer heart attacks, clotting strokes, and cancers. So, overall, aspirin may be beneficial.

It’s important to note that the age categories in that study only went up to 74 years, though. Why? Because the “risk of bleeding on aspirin increases steeply with age,” so the balance may be tipped the other way at 75 years and older. But, in younger folks, these data certainly have the research community buzzing. “The emerging evidence on aspirin’s cancer protection highlights an exciting time for cancer prevention…”

“In light of low-dose aspirin’s ability to reduce mortality from both vascular events and cancer to a very notable degree, it is tempting to recommend this measure…for most healthy adults…However, oral aspirin, even in low doses, has a propensity to damage the gastroduodenal mucosa [linings of our stomachs] and increase risk for gastrointestinal bleeding; this fact may constrain health authorities from recommending aspirin use for subjects deemed to be at low cardiovascular risk”—that is, for the general population. “Recent meta-analyses estimate that a year of low-dose aspirin therapy will induce major gastrointestinal bleeding (requiring hospitalization) in one subject out of 833…”

If only there were a way to get the benefits without the risks.

Those who remember my video Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods already know there is. The aspirin phytonutrient salicylic acid isn’t just found in willow trees, but throughout the plant kingdom, from blackberries and white onions to green apples, green beans, and beyond. This explains why the active ingredient in aspirin is found normally in the bloodstream even in people not taking aspirin. The levels of aspirin in people who eat fruits and vegetables are significantly higher than the levels of those who don’t. If we drink just one fruit smoothie, our levels rise within only 90 minutes. But, one smoothie isn’t going to do it, of course. We need to have regular fruit and vegetable consumption every day. Are these kinds of aspirin levels sufficient to suppress the expression of the inflammatory enzyme implicated in cancer growth and spread, though? Using umbilical cord and foreskin cells—where else would researchers get human tissue?—they found that even those low levels caused by smoothie consumption significantly suppressed the expression of this inflammatory enzyme on a genetic level.

Since this aspirin phytonutrient is made by plants, we might expect plant-eaters to have higher levels. Indeed, not only did researchers find higher blood levels in vegetarians, but there was an overlap between people taking aspirin pills. Some vegetarians had the same level in their blood as people actually taking aspirin. Vegetarians may pee out as much of the active metabolite of aspirin as those who take aspirin do, simply because vegetarians eat so many fruits and vegetables. “Because the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin is probably the result of SA [salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin], and the concentrations of SA seen in vegetarians have been shown to inhibit [that inflammatory enzyme] COX-2 in vitro, it is plausible that dietary salicylates may contribute to the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet, although it seems unlikely that most [omnivores] will achieve sufficient dietary intake of salicylates to have a therapeutic effect.”

Aspirin can chew away at our gut. With all that salicylic acid flowing through their systems, plant-eaters must have higher ulcer rates, right? No. Both vegetarian women and men appear to have a significantly lower risk of ulcers. So, for the general population, by eating plants instead of taking aspirin, we may not only get the benefits without the risks, we can get the benefits with even more benefits. How is this possible? In plants, the salicylic acid can come naturally pre-packaged with gut-protective nutrients.

For example, nitric oxide from dietary nitrates exerts stomach-protective effects by boosting blood flow and protective mucus production in the lining of the stomach—“effects which demonstrably oppose the pro-ulcerative impact of aspirin and other NSAIDs.”

The researcher notes that while “[d]ark green leafy vegetables…are among the richest dietary sources of nitrate…it may be unrealistic to expect people to eat ample servings of these every day,” so we should just give people pills with their pills, but I say we should just eat our greens. People who’ve had a heart attack should follow their physician’s advice, which probably includes taking aspirin every day, but what about everyone else? I think everyone should take aspirin—but in the form of produce, not a pill.


To see the pros versus cons for people trying to prevent or treat heart attacks and stroke, see my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?.

Does the COX enzyme sound familiar? I talked about it in my Anti-Inflammatory Life Is a Bowl of Cherries video.

Where does one get “dietary nitrates”? See Vegetables Rate by Nitrate and Veg-Table Dietary Nitrate Scoring Method. I also discuss nitrates in Slowing Our Metabolism with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables and Oxygenating Blood with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

Do some plant foods have more aspirin than others? Definitely. In fact, some foods have the same amount as a “baby” aspirin. Check out Plants with Aspirin Aspirations.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

The Best Diet for the Inflammation of Aging

One of the most consequences of aging is a decline in immune function, illustrated by vulnerability to dying from the flu and poor response to vaccinations. But, about 20 years ago, a paper was published showing that the immune cells of 80-year-olds produced significantly more pro-inflammatory signals. As I discuss in my video, How to Counter the Inflammation of Aging, this suggests the worst of both worlds—a decline in the part of the immune system that fights specific infections and an aggravation of nonspecific overreactions that can lead to inflammation. This has since been formalized in a concept referred to as a chronic low-grade inflammation that we now know is typical of aging, which may be responsible for the decline and onset of disease in the elderly.

So, what can we do about it? Inflamm-aging appears to be a major consequence of growing old. Can it be prevented or cured? “The key to successful aging and longevity is to decrease chronic inflammation without compromising an acute response when exposed to pathogens.” How do we do that? Nutrition. What we eat is “probably the most powerful and pliable tool that we have to attain a chronic and systemic modulation of aging process…”

In the first systematic review ever published of the associations between dietary patterns and biomarkers of inflammation, the dietary patterns associated with inflammation were almost all meat-based or so-called Western diet patterns. In contrast, vegetable- and fruit-based, or “healthy,” patterns tended to be inversely associated with inflammation. In general, the more plant-based, the less inflammation.

The reason meat is associated with inflammation may be because of both the animal protein and the animal fat. In the first interventional study that separately evaluated the effects of vegetable and animal protein on inflammatory status, researchers found that “a higher intake of animal origin protein—specifically meat—is associated with higher plasma levels of inflammatory markers in obese adults…”

The reason obesity is associated with increased risk of many cancers may be because of obesity-associated inflammation. Obesity-driven inflammation may stimulate prostaglandin-mediated estrogen biosynthesis in breast tissues. What does that mean? The inflammation may activate the enzyme that allows breast tumors to make their own estrogen via an inflammatory compound called prostaglandin. If you measure the level of prostaglandins in women’s urine, it correlates with breast cancer risk. And what can cause high levels of this inflammatory compound? Smoking, a high-saturated fat diet, and obesity. Why does eating saturated fat lead to prostaglandin production? Because prostaglandins are made from arachidonic acid, and arachidonic acid is a major ingredient in animal fats. To put it another way, animal fats contain arachidonic acid, and our body produces inflammatory compounds, like prostaglandins, with arachidonic acid. Inflammatory compounds can then go on to stimulate breast cancer growth and may also play a role in colon cancer, lung cancer, and head and neck cancer.

In contrast, whole plant foods have anti-inflammatory effects, though some plants are better than others. Folks made to eat five-a-day of high-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, like berries and greens, had a significantly better impact on reducing systemic inflammation and liver dysfunction compared those eating five-a-day of the more common low-antioxidant fruits and veggies, like bananas and lettuce.


You can learn more about arachidonic acid in Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation and Plant-Based Diets for Improved Mood and Productivity.

More on battling inflammation in:

And more on healthy aging in:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: