Maintain a Healthy Metabolism to Prevent Cancer

By Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD, CMO

When it comes to cancer prevention, improved awareness of the risk factors that promote metabolic dysfunction may help alert you to take decisive action to ward off the disease before it has a chance to start. The first step is to learn how often unnoticed changes to your metabolism set the stage for the emergence of cancer cells.

Metabolism is your body’s ability to generate cellular energy; virtually everything your body does requires energy. In the early 20th century, researcher Otto Warburg discovered that if healthy cells don’t get enough oxygen, they shift into a more primitive, “backup” metabolism called glycolysis. In this state, injured cells start to burn glucose without oxygen. [1]

Understanding Cellular Energy

Glycolysis is an inefficient metabolic pathway that rapidly and recklessly burns calories to generate large amounts of ATP, which is the energy currency of our cells. This sinister process is known as the Warburg Effect, which characterizes how cancer cells derive their huge energy requirements to support their rapid and destructive growth. [1]

Cancer’s disruption of the cells’ energy production process is also known as fermentation, which creates tremendous acidity in the body resulting in cachexia. Cachexia is responsible for severe weight loss and debilitating fatigue in cancer patients. [2] Over time, cancer patients are subject to mood disorders, depression, and chronic inflammation. Results can also include a reduction or imbalance of hormones and a negative impact on detoxification pathways. In general, the metabolic “terrain” of the body becomes seriously disrupted and dysfunctional.

I compare it to a car engine going seriously out of tune. The tailpipe exhaust is black and foreboding. The car’s performance deteriorates, barely able to clunk along. This metabolic dysfunctional state creates a favorable environment for cancer cells to grow. And like the out-of-tune car, the emerging cancer patient’s energy and zest for life severely lags!

A cancer cell is really a wounded cell. Or, more precisely, the environment of the cancer has been significantly damaged or “wounded.” In the book The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, authors Dr. Nasha Winter, ND, LAc, FABNO, and Jess Higgins Kelley, MNT, ONC, outline 10 metabolic categories they call terrains. This approach to cancer identifies more than 100 mini-wounds, approximately 10 in each category, that over time create a big enough impact on whatever organ is the weak link. [3]

While it is true that some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to cancer, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer explains that cancer is the outcome of sick terrains in the body. The result is that our organ systems begin to break down metabolically. In an effort to survive and heal, paradoxically, the injured cell becomes cancerous.

Cancer isn’t necessarily a built-in genetic time bomb that we inherit from our parents. More often, there is a predisposition to the disease due to environmental risk factors in our upbringing. In other words, the lifestyle behaviors and environmental preferences we learned from our parents impact our genetic expression more than the genes themselves. Cancer is metabolically epigenetic, much more than it is genetic.

For example, if a woman carries the BRCA gene and she makes wise lifestyle choices, she may never “express” the BRCA gene and never develop breast cancer. However, significant metabolic dysfunction resulting from poor environmental factors, lousy food choices, high glucose levels, extreme stressors, lack of human support, and a host of other life circumstances … well, all of these together could “wake up” this gene, setting the stage for cancer.

Pay Attention to Metabolic Factors

When it comes to using a metabolic approach to preventing cancer, awareness is key. If you aren’t aware of your metabolic issues and the metabolic factors that contribute to cancer, you are already at risk.

A good example of this as listed in The Metabolic Approach to Cancer is epigenetics, which is the effect of your environment on your genetic expression. While it isn’t possible to control everything in our environment, we can be intentional about the choices we can control. For example, work on good glucose control, get adequate sleep, avoid environmental toxins when possible, and limit stress, among others.

In the book, Dr. Nasha Winters and Jess Higgins Kelley developed a 10-item checklist for each of the 10 terrains. Readers then tally the number of “yes” answers and use these as “risk areas” that can be mitigated with lifestyle interventions. You can read more in their book to learn how to specifically address these high-risk areas that are personally relevant to you. [3]

We are all busy trying to make a living, and it is easy to be distracted. However, deciding to take time to be aware of and focus on metabolic wellness may help avoid cancer in the first place. The bottom line is that this is a fundamental life decision to take better care of yourself to prevent what would seem to be the long-term, unlikely consequence of cancer. Long-term, that is, until it happens to you.

Fact: 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime. [4]


  1. New clarity on the Warburg effect. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved January 25, 2023, from,that%20require%20respiration%20%5B1%5D.
  2. Watson, S. (2018, September 18). Cachexia: Definition, treatment, and relation to cancer. Healthline. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
  3. Winters, N., & Kelley, J. H. (2017). The Metabolic Approach to Cancer: Integrating Deep Nutrition, the Ketogenic Diet, and Nontoxic Bio-Individualized Therapies. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  4. Lifetime risk of cancer. Cancer Research UK. (2020, December 31). Retrieved January 27, 2023, from