Anti-Cancer Diet: Which Foods Target Cancer Stem Cells?

anti-cancer foods. anti-cancer diet Here’s your 2014 New Year’s bounty: a heads up on what I’m betting will become one of the hottest topics in anti-cancer research– foods and dietary components that can alter cancer stem cells.  

You’ve heard of regular stem cells, right?  

Starting with the discovery of leukemia stem cells in the 1990s, scientists have identified cancer stem cells (CSCs) in a host of malignancies, including breast, brain, colon, head/neck, liver, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate and skin cancers. 

Most traditional therapies, however, including chemo and radiation, “lack the ability to effectively kill these CSCs,” and it’s the stem cells and their capacity to self-renew that drive cancer’s proliferation, according to many scientists. 

“Conventional therapies are directed towards rapidly dividing cells and fail to eliminate the rare cancer stem cells, resulting in regrowth of the tumor. However, recent studies suggest that when CSCs are targeted and killed, it will lead to elimination of the tumor, “ says one group of cancer stem cell theorists. 

Recently, several studies have found that a number of dietary compounds can affect cancer stem cells. Three compounds in particular are garnering attention because they directly target breast cancer stem cells at relatively low concentrations:  

curcumin (in turmeric)

● piperine (in black  pepper)  and

sulforaphane (in broccoli and broccoli sprouts especially. Remember to steam them lightly and eat along with some raw crucifers .)

These food components, as well as many more, also appear to be involved in inhibiting cancer stem cells indirectly by interfering with their abnormal “signaling pathways”—that is, the cascade of signals produced when molecules in cells send out messages.  So far, scientists have identified several signaling pathways that play a key role in the CSC’s ability to keep on renewing itself, and the same pathways are often implicated in various types of cancer. In other words, it may not matter whether cancer is in the breast or the brain, for example; what’s important is the underlying cell signaling pathways that have gone awry.     

While cancer stem cell theorists continue to work on researching drugs and identifying dietary components, you might want to consider adding some of the more promising nutrients to your diet. Here’s a list of other dietary compounds that scientists think may target CSC signaling pathways: 

● catechins—especially EGCG, in green and in white teas 

● feverfew–an herb often used for headaches

● hesperetin-citrus (On balance, I’d emphasize lemons, limes and sour oranges– and avoid sweet oranges due to sugars as well as grapefruit until the science on its effects are settled.) 

● isoflavones genistein and daidzein—soy  (If you choose to eat it, emphasize organic, fermented products such as tempeh, miso or natto in moderation and avoid soy protein isolate.)

lycopene– processed tomato products especially, also apricots, guava, goji berries, papaya, rosehips, watermelon (but watch the fruit sugars!) 

quercetin (may work in synergy with EGCG)— apples, berries, capers, cherries, citrus, grapes, outer layers of onions, olive oil, parsley, sage, tea

● resveratrol (may work in synergy with curcumin)—berries, skins of dark or muscadine grapes, of plums, of red peanuts 

  selenium (may work in synergy with DHA, an omega 3 fatty acid in oily fish) —Brazil nuts, garlic, broccoli, salmon, sardines

theanine—green tea, Bay bolete mushrooms

● Vitamin A—orange and yellow vegetables, dark leafy greens 

● Vitamin D3—sardines, sockeye salmon and sunshine, unprotected for around 20 minutes, especially at midday when the sun is high in the sky.  If you live in northern climes, you may just have to take a winter break somewhere warm and sunny.  Or talk with your doctor about taking a supplement.

Happy New Year, everyone. Count them and enjoy! You’ve now got 14 ideas for your 2014 anti-cancer diet–plus a good excuse for indulging in a hot vacation.          

15 thoughts on “Anti-Cancer Diet: Which Foods Target Cancer Stem Cells?

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  3. I’ll be the first to reply:

    I just want to clarify that no one is saying to avoid traditional therapies. They’re just saying that treatments must go further and target those cancer stem cells.

    Your turn to comment…


    • Traditional? Interesting choice of words, makes it sound as if chemo was something practiced by our ancestors. From what I have seen and read, I would strongly consider avoiding your “traditional” therapies . They kill as many as they save, although I understand that once in the hands of the medical establishment it is very difficult and scary to say no to the doctors recommending it. A choice that I hope to never have to make.


      • Hi, Sam,
        Just to clarify–I’m not making any recommendation about whether or not to take chemo or radiation. I’m a journalist, not a doctor, and I’m just reporting what I’ve gleaned from communicating with many experts (researchers, MDs). On a personal note, I consider myself lucky in that I didn’t have to make that decision. When I was diagnosed with a slow-growing ovarian cancer 20 years ago, I was told that chemo and radiation wouldn’t work–and that my cancer would likely come back. It did–almost a decade ago–and that’s when I decided to focus on diet.

        Thanks for commenting.


        • I think its important to do whatever you can to force cancer into remission. If it means chemo to kill existing cancerous growths along with natural treatment to help target the cancer stem cells, so be it.

          There are a number of incredible natural treatments that can help us overcome all manner of diseases. Considering how many people chemotherapy and radiation have helped, however, I’m glad that the article did not go out of the way to demonize conventional treatments as many people like to do.


    • While I’d love to see medicine in general turn away from toxic treatments and focus research on prevention and better ways to treat when necessary, it’s one of those myths that keep getting bandied about by some that chemo kills more people than cancer does. Just not true. While not perfect a solution by any means, millions of people have benefited (i.e., lived) as a result of chemo and radiation therapies. I hope no one has to make that decision, but if you do, take or don’t take chemo, but be sure you’re doing it for sound and factual reasons, not because of a sound bite that has no basis in fact.


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    • Thank you, reader Lisa, for calling my attention to the need to update this post. Hedge your bets. Reach for selenium bound to cysteine (as in alliums and crucifers) — not to selenium bound to methionine (as in Brazil nuts).


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