Healing and Hope

It’s an exciting time as we see the emergence of a wide range of preventative and healing therapies that offer great hope, now and especially in the future. These alternative treatments represent a huge field, and it’s encouraging, particularly in terms of cancer.

Chemotherapy and radiation are effective, traditional medical tools, and I’m in no way suggesting that people should ignore them in favor of alternatives. But I want to discuss the ones I’m most excited about and explain how and why they work.  

The Power of Polyphenols

The best place to begin is with a discussion of what polyphenols are and why they’re beneficial.

The science behind polyphenols is important in that it explains why some polyphenols are so useful in treating cancer and why some can be harmful. 

Polyphenols are a group of chemicals consisting of connected phenols that are usually sufficiently large in number to form a single chemical structure. Based on the number and nature of phenols in this structure, unique properties develop. For example, they can act as antioxidants, meaning they can neutralize harmful free radicals that would otherwise damage your cells and increase your risk of several conditions such as heart disease. Polyphenols are also thought to reduce inflammation, which is considered the root cause of many chronic illnesses.

Polyphenols are naturally occurring, and they’re in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, teas, coffee, wine, and some grains.  As a general rule, the more colorful the food is, the more polyphenols it contains. Specific, well-known polyphenols are resveratrol found in red wine, epigallcatechin-3-gallate in green tea, and curcumin in turmeric.  

Flavonoids are sub-classes of one type of polyphenol, and as you can see, they too have their own sub-classes—flavonols, isoflavones, and others. The polyphenol in green tea and curcumin in turmeric, for instance, are flavonoids. Red wine’s resveratrol, on the other hand, is a non-flavonoid polyphenol.  

Regularly consuming polyphenols is thought to boost digestion and brain health. The polyphenol-rich plant extract Ginkgo biloba is thought to boost memory, learning, and concentration. It has also been linked to improved brain activity and short-term memory in those with dementia. Polyphenols also protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. 

To demonstrate the validity of polyphenols, try this experiment: Type “Polyphenols, cancer” into the Google search box. You’ll receive almost eight million results.  If you narrow down your search to “green tea extract, cancer,” you’ll receive over 33 million hits.  About 174,000 of those are peer-reviewed or scholarly articles testifying to its effectiveness. The first result is from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website, and it recognizes that green tea extract has proven to be a promising anti-cancer treatment.

Waging War on Cancer

Now let’s dig down into how polyphenols work to fight cancer. My friend, colleague, and former college professor, Gagik Melikyan, deserves credit for first explaining to me the process by which polyphenols function. What he pointed out then and what has stuck with me since is that polyphenols convert to orthoquinones, and as such, they can do both harm and good through their effect on cellular DNA. This is especially true of polyphenols that contain ortho-hydroxy groups, such as catechins found in green tea—they oxidate easily, facilitating their ability to destroy cancer cells. It’s a similar process to traditional chemotherapy.  

For instance, Daunorubicin is a chemotherapy drug produced naturally by bacteria and is used to treat leukemia.  Like drugs such as doxorubicin, idarubicin, and epirubicin, they are highly effective anti-cancer drugs that depend on orthoquinones like those in green tea. In addition, anti-cancer research is focusing a significant amount of effort studying quinones and certain derivatives, attempting to create effective synthetic preparations.

Other naturally-occurring quinones such as juglone (from henna) and emodin (from rhubarb) also have anti-cancer activity. Still, as I alluded to earlier, the downside is that they exhibit toxicity and attack healthy cells. This has been an issue with traditional chemotherapy as well.

Where Toxicity and Effectiveness Meet

The key, therefore, is to find the sweet spot between toxicity and effectiveness. Polyphenols such as EGCG are less powerful than other ortho-quinone methide derivative drugs for cancer, such as anthracyclines, so they’re less toxic and safer.  

As such, they are useful as preventative measures for early-stage cancers. Because of this less powerful chemotherapeutic trait, many polyphenols are essentially “chemotherapy light.” Admittedly, the studies that demonstrate the viability of polyphenols for this purpose are epidemiological rather than more thorough, more rigorous studies.  Still, epidemiological studies backed by laboratory investigation suggest the effectiveness of polyphenols in the prevention and treatment of early-stage cancers.  

Ideally, medical researchers will undertake more studies of this type, but because polyphenols are not proprietary, pharmaceutical companies’ financial incentive isn’t to research these chemicals.  We really need research about how to improve the absorption of polyphenols—they’re generally poorly absorbed. 

It may be that some enterprising scientists will be motivated to develop improved absorption methods.

At this point, though, studies have correlated specific polyphenols with reducing the risk of specific cancers or preventing them. In next week’s blog post, we’ll focus on one of the most studied polyphenols and what we’ve learned.


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