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The Link Between Obesity, Toxicity, and Cancer: Part 2 of 4

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

By Luke J. Terry, MTOM, Dipl.Ac, L.Ac.

In Part 1, statistics linking the rise of obesity to the rising rates of cancer were revealed. The stage was set for a look at the rising level of toxicity, which links obesity and cancer to each other.

Toxicity may be viewed as a byproduct of industrial and post-industrial life. Humans have come to rely up on synthetic chemistry to create the basic necessities of life—packaging and containers for food and drink, as well as myriad household products.

These synthetic products are the end result of chemical processes never seen before on planet earth, resulting in molecules that the human body processes incompletely. Often, the body recognizes man-made chemicals as if they were our own hormones, because the synthetic’s structure is quite similar to the body’s endogenous hormones.

Many of these industrial chemicals mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. Compounds that mimic estrogen are called xenoestrogens, (“estrogen from outside.”) These xenoestrogens cause serious problems in the cellular signaling and hormonal pathways. They are all around us, in the form of flame retardants, pesticides, plastics, and many thousands of other chemicals.

Plastic bottles and containers exude dozens of chemicals. Many of these chemicals, for example bisphenol A and phthalates, are xenoestrogens. Bisphenol A, or BPA, causes cellular changes in the male prostate gland cells that lead to prostate cancer. This carcinogen is found in polycarbonate plastics such as Lexan™ and Nalgene™ products. Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men, and the number one killer of men over 75. To complete the link described in this article, obesity more than doubles the chances of men getting prostate cancer. Compared to thin men, obese men tend to get much more aggressive forms of prostate cancer, as well as increases in the chances of both recurrence and metastasis.

Compounds found in cosmetics and personal care products also act as xenoestrogens, as do many pesticides and herbicides, including DDT, which, although banned in the US, is still produced domestically and used worldwide to combat malaria.

More than 10,000 chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products, and over 70,000 chemicals are in use in America today. The chemical and cosmetic industries are virtually unregulated, and many chemicals found in mainstream cosmetic and beauty products are both toxic and carcinogenic.

Most Americans are exposed daily to all of the top seven carcinogenic substances in cosmetic products: hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs, and acrylamide.

Studies of cancerous breast tumors have shown elevated concentrations of these toxic man-made chemicals, including parabens found in deodorants and antiperspirants.

The previously mentioned studies, only a tiny fraction of a voluminous body of evidence links toxicity with cancer. Their relationship is an inescapable conclusion to anyone who looks deeply at the available research.

To establish the connection between obesity and toxicity, studies of large groups of people have attempted to find lifestyle and demographic factors connecting obesity and toxicity. These studies are called ‘epidemiological’ studies because they look for trends in disease among members of a large population. A major study showed that living near a hazardous waste site increases the risk of being hospitalized for diabetes. Obesity is the most influential risk factor for diabetes. As one would expect, diabetics are at increased risk to be obese, especially as teens.

To complete this unholy triad with the available evidence, several studies have shown that obese people have high levels of toxins stored in their fatty tissue. The theory resulting from this academic work is that the body is using fatty tissue, which has a relatively low level of metabolic activity, as a place to store the toxins away from the body tissues that have high levels of metabolic activity, such as blood, organs, and muscle. In effect, body fat becomes a storehouse of toxins in an attempt to “firewall” the body from toxicity.

Excess adiposity, or fatness, is the source of many other metabolic problems. Obesity is a major cause of liver problems such as non-alcoholic fatty liver. The liver is responsible for over 500 different metabolic functions, so having a liver that is clogged and congested with fat can have health effects that reverberate through the entire body, causing chaos and disorder at every level. For example, the liver is responsible for removing the reproductive hormones from the bloodstream after ovulation. During days 14-28, the uterus, breasts, and other reproductive tissues prepare for the next menstruation. At this time they require an environment that is very low in estrogens and progesterone. When the liver is congested due to toxins and excess fat, it fails to perform its duties, and the blood remains rich with estrogens and progesterone. The female hormones are actually toxic to the other tissues during the final days of the menstrual cycle. That toxicity is experienced as breast tenderness, pain, cramping, emotional lability, and other symptoms that we would identify as PMS.

Most people think that “estrogen” refers to a specific compound. In reality, there is no single chemical compound called “estrogen,” rather the word estrogen refers to a class of related compounds. There are two stable forms of estrogen that are relevant to this discussion and any discussion of feminine disease profiles.

One form of estrogen commonly known as estradiol has protective effects on women’s bodies. Women with greater levels of estradiol compared to other estrogen compounds show decreased risk of reproductive tissue cancers. Another form of estrogen known as estrone is associated with increased risk for reproductive tissue cancers including breast cancer and others. Obese women produce more estrone, and are also at greater risk for PMS. The evidence of the links of the unholy triad continues to mount.

The same trend linking toxicity, obesity and cancer holds true even for young girls. There is a worldwide trend of girls experiencing puberty earlier than ever, a trend that is especially strong in America. Epidemiology shows us that childhood obesity is a probable cause of early-onset or “precocious” puberty, defined as prior to age 11. Research has shown a link to diet because unhealthy eating patterns cause elevated insulin levels, in itself a risk factors for cancer.
There are many suspected links between xenoestrogens and precocious puberty. Children today are fatter today than in years past, just as their parents and other adults are. Likewise, the bodies of young girls contain more xenoestrogens from plastics, pesticides and other industrial sources. One theory states that these xenoestrogenic compounds act as signals to the developing endocrine system, helping to trigger an early puberty.

Other researchers have demonstrated a link between childhood obesity and early puberty. Some researchers hold a hypothesis that the extra body fat is the reason for earlier puberty, since the sex hormones are built out of cholesterol. There is a likely interplay between the two, though this link is still being studied. However, epidemiology yet again demonstrates the unholy triad’s connection with studies showing that for every year earlier that puberty comes, that child’s lifetime cancer risk increases by 4.0%. If this trend prevails for another 40 years, we’ll see the current epidemic of cancer turn into a pandemic. Currently, one in two men, and one in three women will experience cancer in their lifetime.

Of the many theories as to why girls are experiencing puberty earlier, one theory is sociological in nature, because these researchers blame our sex-saturated society. They believe that because girls are bombarded with images and messages of sexuality in culture, their bodies respond to this stimulus by producing more sex hormones earlier, which as described above, is a risk factor for cancer.

Events that effect psychological and emotional health and development are also risk factors for disease. Girls and young women, in western society and worldwide, are still at high risk for sexual assault, rape, and incest. A female’s lifetime risk of some form of sexual assault has been estimated to be as high as one in four. New studies have demonstrated a link between childhood trauma, or what the researchers term “childhood adverse events” including inappropriate sexual contact, is linked to increased disease risk over that child’s lifetime. Childhood traumas increase the risks of eating disorders, addictions, and other maladaptive coping mechanisms, all of which increase a person’s risk of intake of toxic substances, as well as increases in production of endogenous, or internally made toxins, and in turn, increase the risk of obesity.

Psychologically, excess body weight can be seen as a physiological armor, deflecting unwanted attention and decreasing sexual availability. In this way, people may hold onto excess weight as a conflict-avoidance mechanism, a toxic belief in itself.

The holographic theory of the body states that our physical body stores memories of our experiences in our tissues. Tissues become dysfunctional by becoming short, dry, tight, and “gritty” due to the buildup of old traumas, conflicts, and wounds and is stored as toxic compounds of emotional origin. This same toxicity can be stored in adipose or fatty tissue.

Adding complexity is a physiological maxim that sounds like a playground epithet: “the fatter you are, the fatter you get.” Simply stated, it appears that when a person accumulates body fat of an amount equal to more than about 20 lbs over ideal weight, the fatty tissues begins to act like a separate endocrine organ, secreting leptin, cortisol, and other non-beneficial hormones. These hormones accelerate the fat-storage process, and through the catabolic, or muscle-wasting effects of cortisol, the body fat begins to take away the muscle stores while piling on the extra fat pounds. This is a run-away train that is very difficult to stop.

So extremely obese people have toxic stores of fat that are beginning to take over the person’s metabolism. People who are in such poor condition have a very difficult time losing weight, and when they do, they experience many symptoms of detoxification, including skin eruptions, diarrhea, nasal congestion, body aches, and other signs that the body is letting go of toxins. These detox symptoms prevent many people from seeking weight loss. This is unfortunate, because these people are the ones that really need both detoxification and weight loss.

The take-home message is clearly spelled out through the research: you can lower your cancer risk by losing weight. You can lose weight by detoxifying. You can lose toxicity by losing weight. At a deeper and more holistic level, you can process and release old tensions, conflicts, and traumas through a variety of somatic or body therapies, including acupuncture, massage, Feldenkrais and other forms of functional integration, Rolfing and other forms of structural intergration, hypnosis, EFT, and many other therapies.

Vibrant health, or the state of vitality, is characterized by a strong physical body with plenty of lean muscle mass, and appropriate body fat, and relatively low levels of stored toxins. Healthy human beings also demonstrate the ability to easily release both toxins and old traumas, resulting in a state of lowered disease risk, heightened immunity, strength, confidence and clarity. This vitality state is achieved systematically through healthy choices in diet, exercise, healthy introspection, and, increasingly relevant for today, detoxification, internal cleanses, and spiritual or mental fasts from media, noise, pollution and negativity.

Stay tuned for future installments in this series, which will include Part 3, an exploration of the body’s detoxification pathways, and Part 4, the processes and experience of participating in a focused detoxification program to decrease cancer risk as well as for weight loss.

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