For decades, modern medicine has been searching for a cancer cure. But because cancer appears in hundreds of different forms, finding a “magic bullet” treatment that will eradicate it completely is unlikely. The good news is the choices we make on a daily basis—including the foods we eat, the toxins we’re exposed to, how much exercise we get and how we handle stress—appear to be the strongest predictors of whether or not we will develop cancer or other degenerative diseases.

Experts agree that eating a diet rich in plant foods is a particularly powerful tool for cancer prevention. In a new field of study called nutrigenomics, scientists are uncovering how various nutrients affect our genes—including the genes that switch on or switch off cancer cells. Plant foods are especially rich in thousands of compounds called phytochemicals that provide wide-ranging health benefits. Many of these plant chemicals—including anthocyanins, antioxidants, carotenoids, catechins, epicatechins, flavonoids, isoflavones, isothiocyanates, lignans, plant sterols, polyphenols, sulfides, saponins and terpenoids—have been shown to play an important role in maintaining health and protecting us from disease, including cancer.

How Cancer Arises

When you consider that millions of cells in your body are being replaced every second, it’s not surprising that glitches sometimes occur, resulting in the formation of malignant cells. Environmental toxins, radiation, viruses and other physical irritants are some of the common factors that alter DNA molecules within a cell (DNA is like a cellular blueprint that tells each cell how to reproduce). These altered cells don’t abide by normal cell rules. They reproduce more rapidly than the cells from which they originated, and, unlike normal cells, they can invade neighboring tissues and spread to other areas of the body. As they multiply, these errant cells form tumors, destroying healthy tissue in the process and interfering with organ function.   

Fortunately, every cell mutation doesn’t result in cancer, because the immune system searches out and eradicates cells that have gone astray. Specialized white blood cells are constantly on patrol, looking for cancerous cells. When they find an abnormal cell, they engulf and destroy it before it can reproduce. In addition, any cell that begins to multiply out of control is programmed to commit suicide, in a process called apoptosis. For cancer to arise, the immune system has to fail at its job. Therefore, the best way to prevent cancer is to avoid toxins as much as possible and to do all you can to keep your immune system functioning optimally.

Kitchen Herbs for Cancer Protection

Many commonly used herbs and spices (and beverage teas) offer potent protection against cancer. Most culinary herbs are rich in cell-protective antioxidants, including those in the Labiatae family (basil, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme) and those in the Umbelliferae family (caraway, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley). Keep a variety of fresh, quality dried herbs on hand and use them daily. The following herbs are those that have shown particular promise in helping to protect cells and fight cancer:

1. Garlic (Allium sativum)

A member of the lily family, garlic has been prized for its healing properties since at least 2600 BC, when prescriptions for the herb were chiseled onto clay tablets by ancient Sumerians. In cultures around the world, garlic has been embraced as a cure for everything from colds to cancer. The sulfur compounds that imbue garlic with its characteristic odor and flavor are believed to be responsible for its health benefits, including enhancing immune function and increasing the activity of enzymes that break down carcinogens. In addition to sulfur, garlic is rich in selenium, an essential trace mineral that helps protect against cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, population studies show that an increased intake of garlic is associated with a lowered risk of breast, colon, esophagus, pancreatic and stomach cancers. Crushed fresh garlic offers the strongest cancer protection (crushing garlic activates enzymes that create protective compounds). According to the Herb Research Foundation, a typical daily dosage of garlic is 600 to 900 mg of powdered garlic in capsules or tablets; 4 ml of aged garlic liquid extract; 10 mg of garlic oil capsules; or one medium clove of fresh garlic. Raw garlic can cause gastrointestinal upset on an empty stomach, so it’s best to add it to meals. Because of garlic’s blood-thinning effects, consult your doctor before using medicinal amounts of garlic if you’re taking prescription anticoagulants.

2. Green Tea (Camellia sinensis)

Made from the leaves of an evergreen shrub native to Asia, green tea is one of the world’s most popular beverages. Many Asian cultures believe drinking tea promotes longevity, and there’s good research to support that belief.

Studies over the past 25 years have triggered a surge of interest in the health benefits of green tea. Most research has focused on polyphenols found in green tea called catechins. Although all teas contain catechins, because green tea undergoes less processing than black or oolong tea, it contains a higher concentration of catechins, with epigallocatechin (EGCG) considered to be the most active. These compounds have been shown to protect cells from DNA damage, inhibit cancer cell growth and invasiveness, enhance immune function and activate detoxification enzymes.

In Asian countries, people typically drink at least three cups a day of green tea. When brewed correctly, it has a pleasantly mild, slightly astringent flavor. Use 1 heaping teaspoon of tea per cup of water. Bring water just to the boiling point, and then pour over the leaves. Steep for three minutes; longer brewing times tend to make green tea unpleasantly bitter.

It’s important to note that brewed tea has a significantly higher polyphenol content than premade bottled green tea. Decaffeination also reduces the beneficial polyphenol content. For most people, the caffeine in green tea isn’t a problem, because the leaves are rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that has calming effects on the nervous system. The result: an energizing lift that also produces a feeling of calmness.

3. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

A member of the mint family and one of the most common culinary seasonings, rosemary has been recently found to provide powerful protection against cancer-causing agents in grilled meats. Scientists have long warned of the carcinogenic properties of certain foods when they’re cooked at high temperatures—especially meats. When meat is grilled, broiled or seared in a hot frying pan, chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are created from the breakdown of creatinine, an amino acid found in meat; consuming HCAs is associated with colorectal, stomach, lung, pancreatic, breast and prostate cancers. Researchers at Kansas State University have discovered that rosemary reduces HCA levels by 40 percent or more when used to marinate meats or during cooking.

Additionally, rosemary is rich in natural antioxidant compounds, including carnosol, carnosic acid, ursolic acid and rosmarinic acid, all of which have been shown to be protective against cancer. In a 2011 review of studies published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, researchers reported that rosemary has the ability to suppress the development of tumors in the colon, breast, liver and stomach, as well as in melanoma and leukemia. To take advantage of rosemary’s protective benefits, add fresh or dried rosemary to ground meats or use in a marinade prior to cooking or grilling.

4. Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Best known as the spice that adds a golden yellow color to curries, turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine for detoxification and cooling inflammation. Researchers have found that curcumin—the pigment that gives turmeric its bright color—is a potent anti-inflammatory compound that works in a way similar to COX-2 drugs (drugs that control inflammation). But while pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory drugs can have serious side effects (including intestinal bleeding and decreased white blood cell count), curcumin is nontoxic. Controlling systemic inflammation has been positively linked to a significantly reduced risk of breast, colon, prostate and lung cancers. 

To take advantage of the cancer-fighting properties of curcumin, use turmeric often in cooking. The curcumin in turmeric is not easily absorbed, but you can improve absorption by cooking it with a healthy fat and by adding freshly ground black pepper. Black pepper contains a compound called piperine that greatly increases the bioavailability of curcumin. Standardized extracts of turmeric generally contain between 90 and 95 percent curcumin; the typical dosage for reducing inflammation or for other therapeutic effects is 400 to 600 mg three times a day.

Turmeric is safe when used in normal amounts as a culinary spice. If you have a blood clotting disorder, are taking blood-thinning medications or have gallbladder disease, do not take medicinal amounts of turmeric or concentrated extracts of curcumin without consulting a health-care practitioner.

Medicinal Mushrooms:

Powerful Immune Enhancers

In Traditional Chinese medicine, mushrooms have been highly prized for thousands of years for their potent healing benefits. In Japan and China, medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake (Lentinula edodes), maitake (Grifola frondosa) and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have long been regarded as longevity tonics. As it turns out, research is proving that these beneficial fungi are impressive allies for strengthening the immune system.

Mushrooms contain a variety of active compounds, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, ergosterols, triterpenes and antibiotics. Thus far, the most intensively researched compounds have been the polysaccharides, large complex sugar molecules found in the cell walls of fungi. Mushroom polysaccharides improve immune function by increasing the activity of macrophages, big white blood cells that have a voracious appetite for harmful microorganisms and cancerous cells. Polysaccharides also trigger the production of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that kills a wide range of infectious microorganisms and tumor cells. Last, but not least, mushroom polysaccharides activate other essential immune factors, including T-cells, B-cells, interferons and interleukins.

While all medicinal mushrooms benefit the immune system, each type contains different compounds that work in various ways to enhance immunity. Therefore, the best approach is to use an assortment of mushrooms to provide a broad base of immune support. Shiitake and maitake mushrooms can be found fresh in many grocery stores and are delicious added to soups or stir-fries. Along with a wide variety of other medicinal mushrooms, shiitake, maitake and reishi are available as concentrated extracts and in combinations specifically formulated to enhance immune health. Because products vary widely in potency, follow manufacturer’s recommendations for dosages.

5. Maitake activates various cells of the immune system, including those that directly inhibit cancer cells. It’s sold fresh or dried in gourmet and Asian markets; it’s also available in supplement form. Eat maitake a couple of times a week in soups, stir-fries or pasta dishes; for supplements, follow package directions.

6.  Reishi enhances overall immune function and inhibits the growth of tumors. The mushrooms are woody and bitter (thus inedible) but are widely available as a tea, in capsules or as a liquid extract. Follow directions on the package label.

7. Shiitake strengthens immune function, including increasing the production of interferon and other important immune compounds. You can find fresh or dried shiitake in many supermarkets; add them to soups, stir-fries and pasta dishes. For immune enhancement, eat a few shiitakes at least a couple of times a week.

About the Author: Laurel Vukovic has been writing about herbs and healing for more than 25 years. She was an editor for Natural Health magazine for 10 years and has written several books, as well as hundreds of feature articles.

This article was originally published in the HERBAL REMEDIES™ #90 issue. To subscribe, click here.

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