Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Reduce Cancer Risk by Enriching Your Life?

Is it possible to reduce stress and also reduce your risk of getting cancer by improving the environment in which you live?  Results from this study suggests exactly that.  Previous research has already provided evidence that you can reduce your level of stress through environmental enrichment, but this more recent study seems to show a direct connection between improved environmental circumstances and the suppression of tumor growth.

Cute mouse on keyboard

Study results: Suppressed tumor growth via environmental enrichment

The newer study, Cao et al. (2010), discovered that, by stimulating the hypothalamus, tumor growth in mice slowed and survival rate improved. Identifying the biological pathways that affect the growth of disease in the body is a significant scientific advancement, since the study was the first to locate the means by which a more engaging physical or social environment can influence how much and how fast tumors grow in the body.

This report supports the findings of earlier studies showing that rats living  in a more “complex” (interesting/varied) home environment were less anxious, more curious, and more quickly conquered mazes.  From the earlier studies scientists had a general idea that the places in which we live and work could positively influence our mood, increase our health, activity interest, and even our performance at tasks.  Why that happened was less clear until this more recent study. 

To test the breadth of influence that environment had on disease, the scientists in this study used mice that had both melanoma and colon cancer.  The results with either type of tumor were similar; both groups showed tumor suppression and survival as a result of the enhanced living environment.

Rats in the control group – the ones left in the ordinary lab environment – did not do as well.  But the mice stimulated by a more complex living environment experienced significant body changes:
  • Levels of BDNF – short for Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor – an expression of the gene encoding  in the brain’s hypothalamus.
  • Plasma levels of the adipokine leptin.
The study authors used analysis techniques that directly linked the changes in leptin levels to changes tumor growth, concluding that a more complex physical and social  life boosts hypothalamic BDNF, ultimately decreasing tumor growth and progression.

Friends at a cafe

How this study relates to humans and their environments

Yes, a bored rat or mouse will be more anxious and more likely to succumb to tumor growth.  But you’re not a rat, and your daily tasks rarely require you to work your way through a literal maze.  That does not mean that the study conclusions do not apply to your own life.   While these studies were not done on humans, scientists nonetheless suspect that our hypothalamus works the same way.  Consequently, changing your home or work situation in a way that is more positive and stimulating could result in similar benefits. 

You can test this theory, and probably have.  Have you ever noticed that, after leaving a highly stressful living environment or job for one that is less stressful or more enjoyable and stimulating, your overall enjoyment of life improves?  Or that, after switching to a new and better job, you find that your health and sense of well-being gets a boost?  If so, then you can see how your lifestyle/environment may be causing brain changes that may be influencing your physical health and mood.  That environment change, which influences your BDNF levels, could similarly change chemical levels in your body, resulting in suppressed tumor growth.

Even if we cannot yet conclude 100 percent that social circumstances influence human health to the extent that tumor growth can be suppressed and cancer survival rate improved, putting yourself in a more complex, stimulating environment can surely be physically and mentally beneficial, as earlier studies have shown:
  • A stimulating social network is better for you than a socially isolated environment, as shown in a study in which rats experienced increased mammary tumors.
  • Chronic stress that you cannot control increases tumor progression, according to this similar study.
It appears therefore that enriching your life with physical and social complexity and positive stimulation is more likely to restrain tumor growth than living in social isolation.  Scientists are still reluctant to make the direct connection since they have not yet identified the molecular mediators behind this.  It may therefore take some time before we see a merging of neuroscience and oncology that affects cancer treatment. 

Office worker having fun at work

That said, studies have already shown that depression harms cancer patients’ survival rate, and real-world results from successful psychotherapy have shown that patients become physically or socially more engaged in life – experientially similar to the environmental enrichment that mice in the study were experiencing.

Whether or not the hypothalamic BDNF triggers hormonal events that regulate tumor progression, as the study scientists believe, stimulating your environment and participating socially in life is a good gamble to take.  It’s certainly has less risk than trying to improve your health with an untested drug; the only known side effects of enhancing your environment are all positive.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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