What are hormones? Hormones are chemical messengers that are secreted by cells in one part of the body and bind to cells in another part of the body. Their main function is to keep things in balance. When we eat and digest food, chemicals in the food trigger hormonal responses. Sometimes this is not a good thing. The “Big Four” are insulin, leptin, glycogen and cortisol.
Insulin is often referred to as the “master hormone”. Not only does it have a key role in the disease diabetes, it also controls energy storage, cell growth and repair and reproductive function. It’s most important role is the control of blood sugar levels. When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars aka glucose. High glucose levels are harmful to many parts of the body including the kidneys, liver, pancreas, brain and the nervous system. Controlling blood sugar levels is essential for good health. High glucose levels result in burning glucose instead of fat and leads to increased body fat. High carbohydrate consumption and sedentary lifestyle contribute to the “battle of the bulge”.
Leptin’s main function is to keep body fat levels in balance. Body fat storage is a survival mechanism to have energy sources in times of famine. In today’s modern world, this is no longer a problem in most societies. Unfortunately, our brains are not rewired to realize this. When there is an excess of glucose in the bloodstream, the brain thinks more fat storage is needed. This is called Leptin resistance. A symptom of leptin resistance is simply the “munchies” after dinner. Leptin Resistance leads to Insulin Resistance which leads to Type 2 diabetes.
Glycogen’s role in maintaining blood glucose levels is especially important because glucose is virtually the only fuel used by the brain except in prolonged periods of fasting. Glycogen is the storage form of glucose. It is stored primarily in the liver but smaller amounts are found in the kidneys, brain and white blood cells. In the case of diabetes, glycogen metabolism is abnormal and because of abnormal amounts of insulin, liver glycogen can be accumulated or depleted. Glycogen has been shown in studies to be up loaded in many tumor types and may be used as a target in cancer treatment.
Cortisol is simply known as the stress hormone. The synthesis of glycogen from glucose is stimulated by cortisol. Cortisol is essential to our survival because it is the “fight or flight” hormone and warns us of danger. According to an article by Dr. Veronique Desaulniers, when high cortisol levels were noted in patients, these patients had fewer natural killer cells which play a major role in preventing metastasis. These studies lead to conclusions that stress is extremely detrimental to cancer patients. When cortisol levels are high, glucose levels rise and provide fuel for cancer cells.
Maintaining healthy levels of these hormones through healthy diet and lifestyle choices is an essential finding for cancer patients. Hippocrates said it best when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Of course, in the context of breast cancer, Estrogen and Progesterone are key players in the type and aggressiveness of the tumor. These are discussed further in blogs on breast cancer diagnosis.