Can The Keto Diet Treat Cancer? What The Research Has To Say

DISCLAIMER:

What you read here is strictly for discussion purposes. It is not to be considered as medical advice. Always consult with a medical professional and/or personal physician with any apparent or evident concern, symptoms, or curiosity.

There is no more insidious and lethal spectrum of diseases than cancer.

The biology of cancer is highly complex and our understanding of the many types of cancer is constantly evolving.

Interestingly…

There is some research that has led scientists to wonder, “Does the keto diet cure cancer?”

In reality, this is a question that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

There simply isn’t conclusive evidence one way or the other. Nevertheless, there are some intriguing studies available that suggest the keto diet may have an impact on cancer.

Read on!

This article provides a better understanding of how cancer actually works and what the current evidence says about the anti-carcinogenic potential of the keto diet.

What Is Cancer?

Among the general population, cancer is arguably the most misunderstood group of diseases.

Consider how frequently you hear people talk about cancer and the dangers of it… Then consider that only a handful of those people have any clue what’s going on at the cellular level of cancerous tumors.

In fact,

Even scientists were fairly mystified by the biology of cancer a few short decades ago.

As time evolves,

Research helps us gain a better grasp of the biological processes responsible for cancer (and how we can reduce the risk of the disease occurring).

Hint: There is no single food or natural ingredient known to mankind that will prevent or cure cancer; be wary of any article, company, or individual that suggests otherwise.

How Does Cancer Work?

Although the term “cancer” comprises over 100 different diseases – every cancer cell shares one key characteristic: an abnormality that disrupts normal cell division.

In other words,

Cancer cells are the result of modifications to normal (healthy) cells in which they acquire abnormal functions.

These modifications are typically the result of genetic mutations or changes induced through exposure to environmental risk factors such as:

  • ultraviolet light
  • tobacco
  • viruses
  • X-rays
  • noxious chemicals
  • and more

When people use the term “cancer”, they are almost always referring to a malignant tumor in a particular organ or tissue.

As you’re likely aware,

Cancer tumors can occur virtually anywhere in the body. By doing so, it disrupts the normal cellular environment where the cancer cells invade.

So…

What causes cancer cells to replicate and ‘take over’ parts of the human body?

Unbeknownst to many people, cancer cells are made routinely in the body.

In many ways, cancer cells are a normal part of our biology; as long as these cancer cells don’t grow uncontrollably and invade parts of the body away from their point of origination, they are considered benign.

In most cases,

Cancer cells remain benign and don’t grow/proliferate to a point where they are harmful. Malignant cancer cells, on the other hand, are the result of a series of molecular events that alter the normal cellular functions.

These altered cells don’t require the same signals or growth factors to grow and divide like normal cells, which allows them to multiply and spread.

This can have a domino effect; as cancer cells continue to grow and proliferate, they mutate and take on new features that allow them to survive and resist factors that normally inhibit their growth.

The abnormal characteristics and functions of cancer cells are typically the result of mutations in genes that control cell division.

This again has a domino effect, as these mutations can then start to spread and mutate more genes, causing even more abnormal functions and features in cancer cells and their progeny.

Often times, these mutated cells gain the ability to multiply rapidly and essentially “take over” parts of the body that they invade.

Hence, cancer cells work by disrupting the normal cellular environment wherever they spread. Cancer cells in malignant tumors may then metastasize and invade further parts of the body.

As such,

When people ask “Does the keto diet cure cancer?”, they are essentially asking if it destroys malignant cancer cells.

Examining The Current Evidence

Interestingly, current evidence suggests that the majority of cancers are not the result of any one single factor or event.

Rather,

Between 5-7 events need to take place for a normal cell to go through several pre-malignant phases before evolving into invasive cancer.

Important to note!

That these phases don’t happen overnight; it can take years (even decades) between the time the first event occurs and the development of malignant cancer.

This is what makes cancer all the more frightening, as it often evolves slowly without any sort of sign or symptom alerting you to take action before it’s too late.

This is why preventative measures are best when dealing with cancer, which is where the keto diet may come into play.

Since we are all about providing relevant and contemporary keto diet information here at BioKeto, this article will cover the findings of compelling in vivo studies from the past decade (2008-2018).

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the research behind the keto diet and cancer.

Keto Diet and Cancer: Murine Research

The following are murine (rodent) studies examining the effects of the keto diet on cancer.

Note that murine studies do hold merit as to what may happen in humans, as we are in fact very similar to mice genetically. This is one of the reasons research often starts in mice or rats and then proceeds to human trials once a link is found.

Study 1

This study examined the effects of the keto diet versus a “standard diet” on tumor progression in mice with systemic metastatic cancer.

The study also incorporated hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBO2T) as a treatment, both in conjunction with the keto diet and on its own.

HBO2T is one way to flood cancerous tumors with oxygen, which is thought to reverse the hypoxic (oxygen-deprived) conditions that cancer cells normally flourish under.

Results

The average survival time of mice on the keto diet was 48.9 days, compared to 31.2 days for mice on a standard diet.

Mice that were on the keto diet and given HBO2T survived 55.5 days on average, versus 38.8 days for mice on the standard diet + HBO2T.

Conclusions

The researchers conclude that the keto diet significantly slows tumor progression in mice. It is thought that the keto diet does this by “starving” cancer cells, which are usually dependent on glucose for survival.

Study 2

What’s particularly intriguing about this study is that the researchers examined the effects of the keto diet on human gastric cancer cells in mice; this was done by injecting cancerous human gastric cells into 24 female mice.

The study split the mice into two groups of 12 and fed one group the keto diet and the other group a standard diet.

The groups were then compared based on the rate of tumor growth and the length of time it took for the tumors to reach a target volume.

Results

On average, mice fed the keto diet reached the target tumor volume after 34.2 days; mice fed the standard diet reached the target tumor volume after just 23.3 days, suggesting the keto diet slows the rate of tumor growth in human gastric cancer cells.

Conclusions

The keto diet appears to reduce the speed at which tumor cells from human gastric cancer grow.

The researchers note that these findings may be due in part to the anti-tumor effects of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) and omega-3 fatty acids – both of which were much greater in the keto diet than the standard diet.

Study 3

This study was carried out by the same team of researchers as Study 1. In addition to the keto diet and HBO2T, they added a ketone ester treatment.

Ketone esters are forms of supplemental exogenous ketones – similar to CORE BHB – that act as precursors to ketone bodies (e.g. BHB, acetoacetate, etc.).

Results

The chart below depicts the findings of the study, which included three treatment groups:

  • KD = Mice fed keto diet
  • KD + KE = Mice fed keto diet and taking ketone esters (exogenous ketones)
  • KD + KE + HBOT = Mice fed keto diet and taking ketone esters (exogenous ketones) in conjunction with hyperbaric oxygen therapy

As you can see, the survival time continued to increase as further treatments were applied. The mice in this study had metastatic cancer, just as in Study 1.

Conclusions

This study reveals some rather promising things about both the keto diet and exogenous ketones; the researchers also noted that even mice fed high-carb diets had significantly lower rates of tumor growth if they were also given exogenous ketones. This suggests that BHB salts may have anti-cancer properties.

Keto Diet and Cancer: Human Research

In vivo research pertaining to the keto and cancer remains rather scarce.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of human case reports and studies that report similar findings like those in the murine research.

Study 1

This is technically a case report, but it’s one of the very few published papers that involves human patients with advanced malignant cancer who were put on the keto diet.

The report examined the effect of the keto diet in two pediatric patients with advanced malignant tumors in the brain. They were given an MCT-rich keto diet and examined for eight weeks as outpatients.

Results

Both patients had significant reductions in glucose uptake at the tumor site, which helped block the progression of the disease.

One patient also experienced significant improvements in cognitive function and motor skill development during the eight weeks. In fact, she continued the keto diet for 12 months after the initial eight weeks and remained free of further disease progression.

Conclusions

The researchers note that this preliminary research does not replace traditional treatments for cancer. It does, however, warrant further investigations into the anti-tumor properties of the keto diet.

Study 2

This is a pilot study done in 16 patients with advanced metastatic tumors.

Unfortunately, the study didn’t do a great job of controlling the patients’ food intake, nor did they seem to restrict carbohydrate intake to a significant degree (70 grams per day was allowed).

Results

Over half of the patients did not complete the 3-month intervention, due to personal reasons, feeling unwell, resuming chemotherapy, or passing away.

Six patients did, however, complete the keto diet intervention and reported improvement in several quality-of-life parameters.

Conclusions

This study doesn’t seem to tell us much about the progression of cancer and how the keto diet may impact it.

The findings suggest that the keto diet may improve the quality of life and certain blood parameters in patients with advanced cancer (as long as they can tolerate it).

Evidence Against The Keto Diet For Treatment

You might look at the preceding studies and assume the keto diet cures cancer or at least has anti-cancer properties.

While that may be the case for some types of cancer, there appears to be evidence against the keto diet for cancer prevention as well, particularly for breast cancer.

Study 1

This study used a xenograft model by injecting human breast cancer cells into mice and assessing tumor growth.

The mice were split into three groups and injected with one of three solutions daily for three weeks:

  • PBS/sterile solution (control group)
  • PBS + L-Lactate
  • PBS + 3-Hydroxybutyrate (same as beta-hydroxybutyrate)

Results

The results show that injecting mice with BHB actually increased tumor growth, which is contrary to what other murine research found.

It’s important to note that this study looked specifically at human breast cancer cells and that mice metabolize any drug you inject them with at a much higher rate than humans. Thus, it’s hard to tell how much merit these findings have.

Conclusions

The researchers suggest that certain cancer cells present a new paradigm known as the “Reverse Warburg Effect.

In simple terms, these cancer cells use oxidative phosphorylation to generate ATP and metastasize and grow.

As such, BHB and lactate are sources of fuel for these cancer cells. There are also several in vitro (cell culture) studies that support the findings of this study.

The study notes that this may be why diabetic patients are at a greater risk of cancer, as they produce more ketones than non-diabetics.

They also suggest that certain genes dictate whether or not some people are at high-risk of ketone-induced cancer, and that drugs that block ketone production may improve outcomes in these individuals.

Key Takeaways

The short answer to “Does the keto diet cure cancer?

We simply don’t know.

Keep in mind that essentially nothing aside from chemotherapy actually cures cancer. Recall from earlier that things like the keto diet and nutritional supplements serve as preventative measures.

There is certainly evidence that a high-carb diet can expedite tumor growth since certain cancer cells use glucose to grow and proliferate.

As such, the keto diet may be beneficial for slowing tumor growth in patients who have malignant cancer (particularly brain cancer).

In the case of breast cancer, the inverse appears to be true for just ketones and not the keto diet.

Does this mean that females will increase their risk of breast cancer if they follow the keto diet?

Frankly, no.

The keto diet is not the same thing as supplementing with ketones; moreover, ketones are not in and of themselves carcinogenic in people who don’t already have malignant cancer.

It’s also hard to put much weight into the current research on breast cancer and ketones since much of it is theoretical and based on in vitro findings.

Also, the high intake of MCTs and omega-3s on the keto diet appear to play a role in protecting against cancer.

In other words, there are likely ketone-independent mechanisms that underpin how the keto diet reduces the risk of cancer.

Naturally, you should be sticking to a high intake of healthy fats while on the keto diet. If you need more help figuring out which fats are best for keto, head on over to our Ultimate Keto Foods Guide.

Stay tuned to the BioKeto blog as the coming years continue to uncover more about how the keto diet impacts cancer and many other facets of our health and longevity!

 

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Elliot received his BS in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and has been a freelance writer specializing in nutritional and health sciences for the past 5 years. He is thoroughly passionate about exercise, nutrition, and dietary supplementation, especially how they play a role in human health, longevity, and performance. In his free time you can most likely find him lifting weights at the gym or out hiking through the mountains of Colorado. He will also host the upcoming BioKeto podcast. You can connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/elliot.reimers) and Instagram (@eazy_ell)

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