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Terrain Medicine, Cancer and Optimum Health

Throughout history medicine has explored the role of genetics versus environment in the development of disease. When you visit your doctor, a strong emphasis is placed on your family history to determine your risk factors for disease. The types of medical tests and how frequently they are ordered will often be determined by your family history. So, why is it that 70–80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it? This statistic and others like it have caused doctors and scientists to evaluate the role of nutrition, exercise and lifestyle factors in the development of chronic disease.

With recent scientific advancements in the area of genetics, we have an evolving field of nutrigenomics. Human clinical studies are now proving that diet, nutrition, exercise habits and emotional health determine genetic outcome. We are learning how the environment of the cell affects how genes are read. That is, which genes are turned on or off, and even how genes can be read differently, producing drastically different outcomes of health or disease based on lifestyle factors.

Many Naturopathic doctors and other alternative healthcare practitioners refer to this micro-environment within and surrounding our cells as the terrain of the body. I like to use the analogy of the terrain being comparable to the soil in our gardens and crops. When we use clean, organic soil that is rich in nutrients and minerals, we will grow nontoxic and vitamin-rich vegetables. In the same way, the terrain or environment that surrounds the cells of our body is influenced by many factors of our environment; such as toxicity, diet and nutrition, exercise habits and emotional well-being.

What I love about this perspective is that it enables the doctor to empower their patients to take action to improve their health. Now, instead of the old message—that goes something like, “there’s nothing you can do, it’s genetic,” or “you will be on this treatment for the rest of your life”—doctors have the resources to say “with diet and lifestyle changes, we can support your body’s ability to heal itself, increase your resistance to disease and even remove metabolic factors that promote cancer.” I would like to explore some of the physiological factors that affect the terrain that promotes cancer development; but keep in mind, many of these factors contribute to all types of chronic disease.

Chronic inflammation is a slow and progressive change in immune cells that affects the whole body. Approximately one-fifth of all human cancers are associated with chronic inflammation. Blood tests can be used as markers of inflammation, such as hsCRP (highly sensitive C-Reactive protein), which is available through conventional medical testing. Cytokine testing, an alternative medicine approach, is a new and innovative way to look at what is underlying the inflammation in the body. It allows the doctor to identify chronic low-grade infections such as bacterial, viral, and yeast; also, this test will identify if heavy metals are a source of the inflammation.

An example of inflammation is what can happen in the digestive tract. Chronic gut inflammation occurs when patients have food sensitivities and haven’t removed the offending food. Celiac disease is associated with gut-related cancers, lymphomas and autoimmune disease. The solution is to identify the foods you are sensitive to, remove them from the diet, and work with nutrition, herbal medicines and homeopathic medicines to heal the gut. Chronic inflammation, which affects our cells’ micro-environment, can be reversed through this type of terrain medicine.

Metabolic syndrome is a combination of obesity (increased waist to hip ratio), blood glucose dysregulation (Diabetes I & II) and abnormal lipid metabolism (high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol). High levels of insulin cause high levels of Insulin growth factor (IGF-1), which can promote cancer progression. Also, metabolic syndrome is associated with increased levels of circulating estrogens, which increase the patient’s risk of breast and other hormonal cancers.

Metabolic syndrome can also be reversed by increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing fat mass, balancing blood sugars and improving cholesterol metabolism in the body. Eating foods high in fiber, like fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. Limiting starchy foods like breads, pastas, corn and potatoes to 1-2 servings per day. Avoiding high glycemic foods such as sugar, white flour, sodas, candy, muffins and bagels. Also, reducing stress and exercising will drastically improve the metabolism and physiology of the body, helping to reverse metabolic syndrome.

Hormonal imbalances occur from both altered estrogen metabolism and increased environmental exposure. Estrogen is metabolized by the liver into the metabolites 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OHE) and 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone (16-OHE). The ratio of 2:16 can be measured in the urine and is a valuable tool for assessing estrogen metabolism and risk of cancer reoccurrence. An increase in 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone relative to 2-hydroxyestrone has been found to increase risk of breast, prostate, cervical, ovarian and laryngeal cancers. Therefore, the higher the ratio of 2:16, the better the estrogen metabolism of the patient.

You can decrease your exposure to estrogen by eliminating oral birth control pills and synthetic hormone replacement therapy, which are known to increase 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone. Avoiding dietary estrogens that are in commercially grown meats and dairy products. Reduce exposure to environmental estrogens like Bis-phenol A by avoiding the use of plastics as food and water containers. When the liver is not properly breaking down and metabolizing estrogen, a recirculation effect occurs that produces symptoms of hormonal imbalance. This recirculation can be treated and eliminated by repairing disturbances in gut microflora with probiotics and treating constipation, if it is an issue.

Chronic inflammation, metabolic syndrome and hormonal imbalances are just some of the examples of physiological changes that can affect our terrain, which is the environment our cells live in, thereby affecting our gene expression. Poor nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, high cortisol levels from stress and lack of joy in life all contribute to changes in this micro-environment that surrounds and communicates with the cells.

Modern medicine does an excellent job at examining the cancer cells and finding targeted treatments to kill them. However it does not address the terrain, the soil in which the cancer was allowed to develop and flourish.

Naturopathic medicine treats the terrain by assessing each individual for their unique characteristics that have contributed to the disease. Naturopathic therapies are implemented that boost the bodies healing abilities and increase resistance to disease, as well as remove physiological factors that favor tumor proliferation, progression and metastasis.

I encourage doctors and patients to embrace a new paradigm of medicine, one that recognizes the importance of healthy eating, exercise, stress management and joyful living. With the knowledge and scientific proof that diet, lifestyle and psychosocial factors do affect our gene expression and our ultimate health, we can be empowered and motivated to seek answers and find solutions to create optimal health within ourselves.


Dr. Natasha Wolf, ND is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor practicing general family medicine with an emphasis on women’s health and alternative cancer therapies.  She combines nutrition, homeopathic and herbal medicines with her clinical experience to create customized wellness plans for her clients.  She is located in Carlsbad. 760-720-6288.