Stress, Metabolic, and Hormonal Imbalances and Breast Cancer

By: Dr. Kirsten West, ND, LAc, FABNO

When it comes to breast cancer, a variety of things can contribute to a diagnosis. Three common contributors are stress, [1] metabolic imbalance, [2] and hormonal imbalance. [3] While causes are often discussed, a woman should never feel like she is to blame. It is important to change that dialogue. I want women to feel empowered and responsible = response-“able” to make changes to improve their health. Consistent testing, assessing, and addressing are paramount.

Stress is a common issue for everyone. Almost all of us are under some form of chronic stress, but our bodies’ reaction to stress has evolved over time. [4] Historically, humans were stressed because they were in danger for their lives. This may have included running from a bear, other animals, and even other humans, for example. Now, most stress arises from everyday tasks and responsibilities while sitting at a desk or pursuing activities of daily living.

Stress increases hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. [4] These lead to an increase in blood glucose. [5] In the past, this rise in glucose was used to help the body carry out the “fight or flight” response – i.e., to run or hide from a bear or other life-endangering situation. This is no longer true in our current lifestyle. Now, this increase in circulating glucose occurs when we are sedentary, such as when driving or sitting at a desk while at work. Stress suppresses the immune system, while glucose stimulates it in ways that are detrimental, ultimately leading to metabolic imbalance, immune dysregulation, and inflammation. [6]

Some of the inflammatory response involves the release of cytokines, which encompass a number of substances secreted by the immune system that affect other cells. IL-1 [7] and IL-6 [8] can influence cells in ways that may later contribute to breast cancer. For example, IL-1 may result in malaise, fatigue, and depression, while IL-6 may cause anxiety, fatigue, and an aberrant response to pain. IL-6 can also shift metabolism away from melatonin production, which negatively affects sleep and immune function. Low melatonin levels have been tied to an increased risk of breast cancer. [9] Ultimately, inflammatory cytokines create a bodily terrain with an underlying theme of: “All is not well.”

Stress can lead to immune dysregulation, another cause of inflammation. That also can lead to depression and anxiety, which can result in a negative feedback loop.
That is why it is so important to manage stress. Exercise and meditation are good skills, as is intentional breathing with a particular focus on the exhalation to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. [10] The parasympathetic system promotes a response that calms the body. Being in nature is also a key therapy. [11] Close approximation to trees has been shown to increase a sense of overall well-being and proper immune function.

Metabolic imbalances develop, at least in part, because human physiology has not caught up with how quickly society has progressed. Humans weren’t very good hunters, which meant that they were accustomed to longer periods of fasting. Our bodies are designed to have periods of time when we don’t eat. In times of hunting and gathering, we might have had a squirrel for lunch and not eat again for two days.

This is no longer the case for most populations of human beings in First World countries. Food is readily available, and snacking is common. As a result, we don’t fast. We aren’t sleeping when we should be, which also affects circadian rhythm and melatonin levels. [12] Additionally, the quality of our food is a factor, with much of our diet consisting of processed food that is not organic and is low in nutrients because of the poor quality of the soil. Over-farming, environmental toxins, improper crop rotation, and global warming are just a few causes of poor soil. [13] I recommend fasting for at least 13 hours daily, with the final meal eaten no fewer than three hours before sleep, incorporating organic foods, and procuring foods grown through regenerative agricultural practices whenever possible.

Exercise can help regulate metabolic imbalances. As a counterbalance to stress, moving your body helps modulate glucose circulation when the muscles are utilized, and more muscle mass keeps glucose levels lower. [14] Our bodies are designed to move. The more we move, the more we utilize glucose and help to offset the stress response in a positive way. Unlike our arterial system, our lymphatic (immune) system requires muscle movement for proper circulation. Of importance, movement should act as a positive stressor and be performed in moderation so as to avoid placing the stress of oxidative load on our system. I recommend approximately 150-250 minutes of exercise a week, spread over 5-7 days, that incorporates resistance and aerobic training.

Hormonal imbalances are also a consideration, especially for women. The use of birth control pills at a young age can affect that balance early. [15] Estrogen-like endocrine disrupters (EEDCs) are also common in society and can be found in plastics, liners in metal food cans, detergents, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides, to name a few. [16] They are also prevalent in antibiotics given to animals and are thereby present in our food supply. This can be a concern for women, as it can speed up the onset of puberty. [17]

I advise women that it is not only important to watch what you put in your body, but also what is on your body. Our skin is our largest organ. [18] This is especially important for women who have poor detoxification pathways or improper metabolism of hormones. For more information, or to check the rating of skincare products (as well as cleaning products), please check out the Environmental Working Group website: [19]

By understanding some of the primary risk factors for developing breast cancer, we can feel empowered to make the necessary changes. Not only must we be aware, but we must also take responsibility for our health through conscious choices and proper testing and assessment that can help to identify physiological terrain patterns needing support. Your Riordan team is a good place to start. It is never too early, or too late. Breast cancer awareness and our responsibility to ourselves, our fellow human beings, our society, and our planet are key. October is a good month to begin awareness that lasts the year through.


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