by Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
A recent article by Dr. Niva Shapira in the journal Nutrition Reviews lays out the evidence for a Nutritional approach to sun protection in 7 1/2 pages (with an impressive 149 references).
It points directly to the major culprit behind the large majority of skin cancers: poor diet!
Yes, we can now add another health problem to the long, impressive, list of poor-diet-related ailments and diseases. As Dr. Shapira outlines in the Nutrition Reviews article, poor diet—especially the Standard American Diet (very appropriately abbreviated “SAD”)—is the major contributor to skin cancer.
Learn About The Standard American Diet (SAD)
Location, location, location…or is it?
Did you know that Greece—yes, sunny Greece—has one of the lowest rates of the worst sort of skin cancer—melanoma—on this entire planet? But Greeks who emigrate to Australia and adopt “Western” diets (instead of the native Greek “Mediterranean” diet) develop a “Western” disease pattern—including more melanoma while, according to Dr. Shapira, “….adherence to a Mediterranean diet has been shown to [decrease] melanoma incidence and [increase] survival among populations in non-Mediterranean countries, such as the United States and Australia…”
Australians, on the other hand have one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. As the author further writes, with proper scientific caution: “this suggests that the dietary benefits, as well as the disadvantages of non-adherence [to the Mediterranean diet], may be geographically transferable.” Translated to simpler English: “It’s not where you live, it’s what you eat that keeps you healthy—or lets you get sick.”
Not just melanoma, but all types of ultra-violet (UV) radiation- associated skin damage are much more strongly diminished by diet than location on the planet. What aspects of the Mediterranean diet appear to be the most protective? Fish and shellfish, tea, high consumption of vegetables (particularly carrots, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and others), high consumption of fruits (particularly citrus), and low alcohol consumption.
Your skin-cancer-busting arsenal
Although getting our nutrients from what we eat is always best, dietary supplementation can also protect us against UV-related skin damage and skin cancer.
Let’s go beyond just vitamins C, A, and E, for a more extensive list of nutrients found to reduce UV-associated skin damage and cancer. Let’s start with:
Carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene have been found to protect against UV-associated skin damage individually and as components of diet. One way they appear to do this is by quenching (cancelling out) the effects of free radicals, highly damaging molecules released by UV exposure. Beta-carotene specifically reduces melanoma risk, and works synergistically with vitamins C, A, and E for a “multiplier effect.” Along with fellow carotenoids lutein and lycopene, beta-carotene also significantly reduces the redness (“erythema”) caused by sunshine overexposure.
Lutein protects skin cells against both oxidative damage and genetic damage. UV-exposed skin protected with lutein actually shows less cell loss, less damage to the membranes of cells, and less damage to elastic tissues. Lutein also combats suppression of the immune system.
According to Dr. Shapira, one group of researchers found that an oral lycopene supplement reduced the count of sunburned cells by 83 percent, as compared with people who took no lycopene and had the same duration of sun exposure. She cites another research group reporting a 40 percent reduction in sunshine-caused redness in individuals consuming just 16 milligrams of lycopene (found in 3 tablespoonsful of tomato paste or in many supplements) and 2 teaspoonsful of olive oil per day.
Discover the Benefits of Tomatoes – Fight Inflammation
Beta-carotene is found in the highest concentrations in carrots, sweet potato, yams, pumpkin, spinach, kale, collard greens, and nearly any other yellow or orange vegetable. Lutein levels are exceptionally high in spinach and kale, and relatively high in peas, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, pistachios, broccoli, corn. Lycopene is the red pigment found in tomatoes, and is actually most bio-available from tomato paste, tomato sauce, and ketchup (sugar free, please). There’s also a high lycopene content in watermelon, pink guava, and papaya.
Next on the list are flavonoids and polyphenols, which have been found to protect against cancer formation induced by UV radiation. These include epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea, theaflavins and thearubins from black tea, caffeine (yes, that’s caffeine), flavonoids from citrus peel, proanthocyanidins, and other polyphenols from grape seeds, red wine, and cocoa.
EGCG reduces the frequency of gene mutation and aging in human skin fibroblasts (which make collagen in skin) exposed to both UV-A and UV-B over long periods of time. Black tea and green tea polyphenols both protect against UV-B tumors, with black tea polyphenols offering the best protection. One study showed that higher levels of tea consumption were associated with lower levels of both basal and squamous cell cancers.
Citrus peel flavonoids have been found to protect against squamous cell cancer, and when they’re combined with black tea, the protective effect is even greater. Polyphenols from cocoa significantly protected against UV induced erythema, although the effect was found to be less protective than that of lycopene.
Resveratrol, proanthocyanidins, and polyphenols (all found in red grapes) each inhibit skin cancer induced by UV. And, like citrus peel flavonoids and black tea, they work even better when they’re used together. These nutrients have all been found to work by helping conserve internally produced antioxidant enzymes and glutathione (a major antioxidant), suppress the oxidative effects of internally produced peroxide and nitric oxide, and inhibit UV-induced cell death.
In addition to the foods noted above, many herbs, spices, and seasonings—including rosemary, oregano, thyme, and garlic—are rich in polyphenols that protect against UV radiation.
Next up is one of the vitamins we discussed in the previous article about natural skin cancer protection: vitamin C. This nutrient significantly reduces the decline in glutathione, glutathione peroxidase and SOD (superoxide dismutase, another important internally-produced antioxidant) induced by UV. Vitamin C works with beta-carotene to reduce UV-induced erythema, and protects against adverse effects of UV on DNA.
Then we have vitamin E (as mixed tocopherols), which protects against UV-induced DNA damage, lipid peroxidation (oxidation damage to fats and oils), and cancerous changes. Vitamin E also protects many other nutrients against oxidation, including beta-carotene and lycopene.
B-vitamins also offer protection against skin cancer. One thing to be aware of, though—vitamin B2 (riboflavin) actually might make UV risk greater for skin cells. However, if vitamin C levels are high (supplements are usually necessary in addition to what’s contained in food), this effect of vitamin B2 is significantly reduced. But other B-vitamins are protective against UV damage, including methylfolate (a very active form of folate/folic acid), which inhibits UV-induced breaks in DNA. Folate is extremely sensitive to breakdown by UV, so if you’re exposed to more than a little sun, consider using a methylfolate supplement, as folate in food breaks down more rapidly than nearly any other nutrient.
Rounding out our list are fish oil and olive oil. Fish oil (which is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids) significantly reduces UV-induced suppression of the immune system and cancer induction. By contrast, omega-6 fatty acids (the highest amounts of which are found in vegetable oils) are associated with UV-induced DNA damage and tumor growth. Population studies show a trend toward lower risk of squamous cell cancers and melanoma with higher ratios of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids.
Olive oil, which is high in omega-9 and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, helps slow signs of skin aging and protects against skin cancers. It also contains the antioxidants oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol, which protect against UV-induced pro-cancerous activity.
Jonathan V. Wright, MD is a leading pioneer in nutritional therapy and preventive medicine. Dr. Wright received his BA from Harvard College and his MD from the University of Michigan.
He is the author or co-author of 15 books, including Natural Medicine, Optimal Wellness and Stay Young & Sexy with Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement: The Science Explained and the Nutrition & Healing newsletter. Dr. Wright is the Medical Director of the Tahoma Clinic in Washington State.
Nutr Rev. 2010 Feb;68(2):75-86. “Nutritional approach to sun protection: a suggested complement to external strategies.” Shapira N. Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel.
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