Breast cancer and inflammation

Breast cancer is probably the greatest fear women have, even though they are 10 times more likely to die from heart disease. Yet both diseases are driven by cellular inflammation.

Cellular inflammation occurs when the most primitive part of your immune system (the innate immune system) is activated. The key player in the innate immune system is a gene transcription protein known as nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-κB). Once activated, NF-κB moves into the cell’s nucleus and causes the expression of a wide variety of pro-inflammatory mediators that accelerate the growth of the tumor. A recent publication in Cancer Research has demonstrated that complete inhibition of the NF-κB in the breast tissue prevents the development of breast cancer in animal models (1).

Of course, there is one slight problem with this approach. If you inhibit NF-κB too much, you make yourself a sitting target for microbial invasion. So the question is what activates the NF-κB in the first place? The answer is the diet, and specifically how the diet increases the levels of arachidonic acid, as I described in my most recent book, “Toxic Fat” (2). As the levels of arachidonic acid increase in the cell, there is an increased formation of inflammatory compounds (i.e. leukotrienes) that activate NF-κB (3).

So what might the best approach be for reducing the risk of breast cancer? The obvious answer is to decrease the levels of arachidonic acid in the breast tissue. The best way would be to follow a strict anti inflammatory diet to reduce the formation of arachidonic acid in the first place (4).

Unfortunately, most women (and men) are not willing to take that step. That being the case, then what other dietary approach can be used? I would suggest that supplementing the diet with high-purity omega-3 fatty acid concentrates rich in EPA and DHA is the one approach that everyone can follow. This is especially true since it takes only 15 seconds a day. The benefits of this approach was recently demonstrated in another article published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that demonstrated supplementation with purified omega-3 concentrates can dramatically increase the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the breast tissue of women who have a high-risk potential of developing breast cancer (5).

Of course, if you not only take high-purity omega-3 fatty acid concentrates, but also follow the anti inflammatory diet, then you will have done every possible dietary intervention to reduce the activation of NF-κB in the target tissue for breast cancer (not to mention also reducing the risk for heart disease). Of course, there are some side effects to this dietary approach: You become thinner, smarter and happier in the process.


  1. Liu M, Sakamaki T, Casimiro MC, Willmarth NE, Quong AA, Ju X, Ojeifo J, Jiao X, Yeow WS, Katiyar S, Shirley LA, Joyce D, Lisanti MP, Albanese C, and Pestell RG. “The canonical NF-kappaB pathway governs mammary tumorigenesis in transgenic mice and tumor stem cell expansion.” Cancer Res 24: 10464-10473 (2010)
  2. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN. (2008)
  3. Sanchez-Galan E, Gomez-Hernandez A, Vidal C, Martin-Ventura JL, Blanco-Colio LM, Munoz-Garcia B. Ortega L, Egido J, and Tunon J. “Leukotriene B4 enhances the activity of nuclear factor-kappaB pathway through BLT1 and BLT2 receptors in atherosclerosis.” Cardiovasc Res 81: 216-225 (2009)
  4. Sears B. “The Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1995)
  5. Yee LD, Lester JL, Cole RM, Richardson JR, Hsu JC, Li Y, Lehman A, Belury MA, and Clinton SK. “Omega-3 fatty acid supplements in women at high risk of breast cancer have dose-dependent effects on breast adipose tissue fatty acid composition.” Am J Clin Nutr 91:1185–1194 (2010)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

23 thoughts on “Breast cancer and inflammation

    • I believe that alpha lipoic acid is modulating NF-kappaB indirectly by its reduction of oxidative stress within the cell. In particular, its direct mode of action may be through the inhibition of matrix metalloproteinase-9 expression. Alpha lipoic acid also appears to up-regulate the transcription factor PGC-1alpha that activates mitochrondrial biogenesis, On the other hand, alpha lipopic acid tends to inhibits AMP kinase activity necessary for maintenance of ATP levels in the cells. In the final analysis, we still have lot to learn about nutrient regulation of gene expression.

  1. Hi Dr. Sears, I have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis. I’m not really taking regular supplements. age 67, what should I take. I read that with this disorder one can have hypercalcemia. Therefore should I not take calcium and what about magnesium and vitamin B?
    Hopefully you can reply.

    • I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis 6 years ago. I went with The Marshal Protocol, found on line. My Dr. helped and I got rid of it in my tear gland. 5 years later, it showed up in my lungs. After a year on the treatment, x-ray and MRI showed my lungs are now completely clear. If the web site is not taking anyone new now, go to Chronic Illness Recover.( Good luck and God bless.

  2. One could also make certain to get enough iodine. That, too, will stop breast cancer, and even get rid of those little nodes that have already formed. Lugol’s solution is your best bet as it has both kinds of iodine needed.

  3. Hi Dr. Sears…

    I am an avid fan of the Zone diet and have been for about 5 years. Tremendous success. My only problem with the blogs is I know you’re a doctor, but is there any way some of your blogs, which I find fascinating and important, can be broken down a bit to be more understandable to the average mind? Especially the breast cancer blog which really interests me with my family history? thanks!

    • Here is an easier way to understand the essence of all of my blogs. Excess cellular inflammation is bad.

      The best way to reduce cellular inflammation if eat less omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3 fatty acids. At the same time eat less grains and more vegetables and fruits.

      • Dr. Sears, I was diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer in 2004 following my crossing the Finish Line at the Kona Ironman Triathlon World Championships! (swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2) I was lucky! It was less than 1 mm at the time of surgery althought the cancer cells were high grade. I was required to have 33 radiation treatments. If I had waited six months to have another mammogram, I was told my life as I know it would have been over! My question: My Oncologist suggested I take Evening Primrose Oil 1500 which has 150 mg GLA. I followed your suggestion to take Omega 3 supplements, so I think I have a good balance. I eat lots of organic fruits and vegetables and have greatly cut back on meat although I am not strictly vegetarian. I qualified again for Kona IM in 2011 and would love your advice to keep inflammation at a low level even with 16-20 hours of training a week. Thanks!

  4. Dr. Sears,

    I have your “Toxic Fat” book and it’s become my bible along with “Younger Next Year”. I was
    diagnosed with Vasculitis back in the early 90′s and I’m wondering if there is any connections…

    • Vasculitis is an inflammatory condition most likely accelerated by long-term exposure to increased levels of cellular inflammation. Following an anti-inflammatory diet as outlined in Toxic Fat would an excellent way of reducing cellular inflammation.

  5. Dr. Sears….My doctor has just reccommended the Zone diet for me. My question is about supplements. I do alot of reading, and it seems like every day there is a new mineral, vitamin or amino acid that medical experts urge us to take for various reasons. It’s enough to drive one batty. Can you suggest the vitamins, etc. that would be the most beneficial ? I am a 44 year old woman, and don’t want to take unneccessary supplements.

    • On a scale of 1 to 10 I rank supplements as follows based on the intervention data in published clinical trials:

      I give vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc a 1
      I give vitamin D a 2
      I give polyphenols a 5
      I give EPA/DHA concentrates a 12.

      Start with the top ranking supplements and work your way down.

  6. Dear dr.Sears,

    me and my wife are the dentists, our entire family is on the Zone, we prepare Zone meals even for kids aged from 1 to 3,5 years. We do sports on regular basis, I`m actually a natural bodybuilder. During my longterm period of studying, reading all sorts of books concerning and not concerning medicine, there are always some “wise heads” (Muscle Mag, etc) suggesting variety of ways how to work out properly to gain as much as muscleweight as possible.And of course, all kinds of supplements. At this time I workout as you recomended, take Athlete Pro and Glutamin (before and after the combination with glutamin ok?), omega is always on the menu, and so are poliphenols.
    My question is: is it true that Tribulus Terrestis naturally enhances testosteron excretion? And if its true, does it make any sense to consume it since I`m in the zone?
    Sorry for too long post,
    Yours thankfully

    • Having worked with Olympic and professional athletes for years, I guarantee there is no natural secret weapon for increasing muscle mass other than smart exercise, an excellent diet sufficient in protein that reduces cellular inflammation, and rest between exercise bouts.

  7. Hi, I believe in non-violence including non-violence towards animals. Why thousands of fishes have to be killed for supplements? Surely there must be another way to get good omega 3 supplements from nature. Can you create an alternative product for vegetarians, please. I like that you are taking things fowards wtih your ideas. But in my opinion a truly innovative approach would consider the implication on nature at the same time. This would be a true revolution and evolution in the habits of human beings. A win-win situation for planet and human beigns. You can do this for us Dr Bears! Many thanks

    • Keep in mind that most of the fish oil in the world is used for fish farms. Only 15% is used for human purposes.

      Nonetheless, there aren’t too many alternatives. Flax seed is rich in short-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are very poorly converted to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cellular inflammation. This means you would have to take about 20-100 times the volume of flax seed oil to have the same anti-inflammatory effect of a much smaller volume of fish oil.

      There are algal oils that contain only DHA, but no EPA. It is the EPA that provides most of the anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil as it inhibits the COX and LOX enzymes that produce inflammatory eicosanoids.

      There are new yeast mutants being developed that make both EPA and DHA, but they are not ready for human consumption and will be much more expensive than fish oil concentrates.

      The best way to reduce cellular inflammation is to radically restrict the intake of omega-6 fatty acids and reduce the secretion of insulin. In other words, following a very strict Zone diet. It is more difficult to radically change your diet to reduce cellular inflammation, but it can be done. This way you save the fish.

  8. PS Vegeterians are already growing in numbers. Products and shops targeted to them are growing like mushrooms. I am sure that there are plenty of money to be made!

  9. Dr Sears,

    I have been on the Zone diet for a year along with daily exercise, taking 4 Omega Rx caps and one polyphenol. I lost 20 lbs. I’m 5’6″, 129 lbs and 43 yrs old. I have been feeling quite well until this past week. I’ve had unexplained diarrhea only after eating multiple times everyday. I don’t eat wheat/grains or dairy. The only thing I’ve changed in my diet is that a month ago I increased my Omega Rx to 6 caps a day thinking it would help my brittle nails. I have never had the SIP blood test done. Is it possible the diarrhea could be from my increased dosage of Omega Rx? If so, why would this be? Am I putting myself at risk for other side effects of too much fish oil? What would those risks be? Bleeding? Strokes? If it matters, I take 4 caps after breakfast and 2 after dinner but still only one polyphenol. Any input from you on this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

  10. You might want to think about taking the liquid polyphenol mixture since it contains seaweed and aloe vera that help emulsify the fish oil more effectively and would eliminate the unexplained diarrhea especially at the higher levels of EPA and DHA.

  11. Dear Dr. Sears,

    After the birth of my daughter nine years ago, I followed the Zone Diet to get back into shape and felt amazing. Fast forward a few years and I fell off the diet and got a job where I primarily sat at a desk. I did little exercise and ate poorly. I recently found a lump on my breast and had a mammogram and biopsy yesterday. As I wait for the results I’m eating in the Zone (and making the Zone my life choice). My question is, how much Omega 3 should I take? I usually take 4 capsules. Should I increase the dosage just in case? If I have breast cancer, what should I increase the dosage to? I”m 5’7″, 150 lbs. and 39 years old.

    Thanks for all the work that you do.

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