Curebiome Naturopathic

Mitochondria and Cancer – The Missing Link

Mitochondria and Cancer

The missing link

Something serious is happening, cancer is taking the lead in causes of death in the United States. There are a few things that are consistent among the many different types of cancers that occur, but one of these similarities is mitochondrial function. In almost all (80-90%) of cancer cells, mitochondria are abnormal. Both their physical structure and their function are effect, on top of having an overall decreased number from normal cells. Mitochondrial dysfunction is a major component of cancer that is often forgotten and ignored by the current treatment strategies.

One thing researchers have noticed time and again is that how the mitochondria within cancer cells look and act. When viewed under an electron microscope the mitochondria from cancer cells look… wrong. Normal mitochondria have many squiggly lines (cristae) but cancer mitochondria often look smooth and have lost many of those lines which is where an important activity called cellular respiration occurs. Respiration allows mitochondria to produce high amounts of energy for our cells. In addition to this change in structure, there also tend to be far fewer mitochondria within the cell than normal, further aggravating the situation of low or absent mitochondrial function.

Mitochondria make ATP, an energy dense molecule, which is a primary function we have come to rely on from them. When they are deformed and absent like we see in cancer cells the energy has to come from somewhere else, more primitive cell pathways called fermentation. This is called the Warburg phenotype, as identified by nobel prize winner Otto Warburg. This leaves the cell with far less energy (2 ATP molecules, instead of 38 ATP with mitochondrial help) and with a lot more potentially harmful byproducts like lactate. High amounts of lactate lead to acidification of the environment directly around the cell, which ends up supporting and protecting the cancer cells and tumor, not ideal. To keep up the cancer cell consumes much, much, much higher amounts of glucose than normal for fermentation, just to survive. The cancer cells become a magnet for glucose in the body, which is exactly how PET scans show tumors.


Also notable about cancerous cells is the required components to replicate another cancer cell, which is probably not what you would expect. Going back to cell biology, most human cells have a nucleus and the same is true of cancer cells. The nucleus is home to our cells DNA, and is where many signals target to trigger actions in the cell – so a cell with a cancerous nucleus will probably divide and create more cancerous cells – right? Actually, not quite. Interestingly enough researchers are able to remove and swap the nucleus of different cells, and when they did this with cancer cells, the cancer nucleus alone did not lead to more cancerous cells. In fact it is all of the other components, including the mitochondria, which were cause for replication of more cancer cells. This means any therapies which target and restore mitochondria function will likely decrease the potential of a cancer to replicate and metastasize. Some research is actually suggesting that as mitochondrial function is restored it repairs the ability of the cancer cell to signal its own death (apoptosis) – further solving the problem.


Mitochondria are clearly important and play an important role in cancer, so what can be done to prevent and treat cancer through mitochondria? The first and most powerful place to start is with diet, since we mentioned cancer cells expressing the Warburg phenotype literally cannot produce energy through mitochondrial respiration – we can take advantage of this. By dramatically reducing sugars and carbohydrates we can starve cancerous and precancerous cells which have no ability to metabolize fats. There are multiple options for this but the two most common and in my opinion the easiest, are through intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets. Intermittent fasting is simply prolonging the time between meals – usually involving a minimum of a 12-16 hour window which transitions the body to utilize all stored glucose and metabolize stored fats into ketones – which are energy dense molecules which are metabolized by the mitochondria and cannot be used by cancerous cells with impaired mitochondria. Ketogenic diet is taking this to the next level and maintaining elevated ketone levels for 24 hours a day by eating very little carbohydrate, moderate protein and high amounts of healthy fats. Both of these strategies are shown to work very well in different cancers, but are not a magic bullet for every situation – so it’s important to know when you can and cannot rely on this effect.

In addition to ketogenic diet and fasting, other approaches will take a major emphasis on restoring mitochondrial antioxidants and supportive nutrients through oral and sometimes intravenous supplementation. Pulling in environmental medicine, which is assessing for any environmental chemicals and heavy metals – avoiding further exposure and reducing body levels, will also aid in improving mitochondrial function. Fortunately there are many angles to approach the support of mitochondrial health which means we improve the situation even if there are certain things a person can’t tolerate or manage at the time.

The metabolic dysfunction involving mitochondria is a hallmark of cancer, as discovered by Nobel Prize winner Otto Warburg. By adding this knowledge and therapies to address mitochondrial health alongside conventional treatments we see improved outcomes and improved quality of life, as research is showing us in multiple situations across multiple forms of cancer.

6 Cancer Prevention Strategies

Six strategies for prevention (and potential management) of cancer


Cancer stinks, and in today’s world almost everyone knows someone who has or had one form of cancer or another. There is a ton of literature and even more people telling us their opinions (whether right or wrong). So I’m sharing three less known cancer prevention strategies and three more well studied ways to prevent cancer, all of which are being used to support treatment of certain cancers. Hopefully some of these will be familiar to you, others may be new or surprising.

Mitochondrial Support

If you’ve read our article on mitochondria (tk link) and cancer, then you already know that it’s extremely common for mitochondria to be abnormal in almost every cancer cell and that this abnormality eliminates that ability of mitochondria to signal the broken cell to die. Mitochondrial support can be supportive for multiple reasons. First if this support can rehabilitate the broken mitochondria, sometimes this can trigger cell death alone. Even if that cancer cell mitochondria does not recover there is the benefit for all the other cells in the body, which can help support more resistance of healthy cells and more susceptibility of the cancer cells to other approaches like chemotherapy.


Ketogenic Diet/Fasting

The ketogenic diet is a whole topic unto itself, but there are many fantastic researchers putting this together, like Dom D’agostino (TK link) and more. Ketogenic diet works in cancers through the mitochondrial malfunction we’ve talked about before. Any cancer cell with broken mitochondria is subject to the Warburg Effect, meaning it can only use glucose for energy, where functioning mitochondria can use ketone bodies produced by the ketogenic diet. These ketone bodies are both energy dense and antioxidant, they are protective to the brain and nervous tissues and improve mitochondrial function while starving out and sensitizing cancer cells to other therapies. Fasting functions very similarly in converting stored body fat into ketone bodies, granting very similar benefits. All in all the ketogenic diet is a fantastic consideration for most cancers, and can be utilized on a less intense and more occasional approach for anyone interested in prevention.


Detoxification of Environmental Toxins

We mention environmental toxins quite often here at Curebiome, that’s because they are everywhere and responsible for aggravating and causing many problems we are dealing with. Environmental toxins are also low hanging fruit, like mitochondrial support and the microbiome. Almost everyone is going to benefit from addressing these things, either directly through feeling more vitality or dramatically reduced risks of numerous diseases. Taking the time to shift your lifestyle to avoid toxins and even undergo some more extensive detoxification whether mild or intense, is removing many carcinogens from your body and helping to reduce your risk of multiple cancers down the road. Highest concerns are ubiquitous hormone disruptors like BPA, plastics and pthalates.


Green tea

If you haven’t heard about green tea and how good it is for you, then you’re one of the few who is in for a treat. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of studies around this plant and the health benefits it provides. Green tea is an antioxidant rich tea, which comes in many forms and includes an amino acid that is very calming and focusing to the brain. This offsets the small amount of caffeine green tea contains. There are studies using green tea extracts in regards to prevention of lymphomas, breast cancers and more.



I would be very surprised if you haven’t heard about turmeric, but this is another highly studied plant in regards to cancer prevention and treatment. This plant is amazing for the scope of health benefits it has, for everything from pain, pesticide poisoning, to anticancer properties it makes it important to consider adding this food to your diet. Turmeric is a staple ingredient in Indian and Thai foods, and it’s easy to cook with and incorporate into a lot of dishes. There are things like fermented turmeric teas to we’re looking into which may provide a beneficial dose of healthy probiotics.


Physical Exercise

Exercise is huge for everything, including cancer. There are multiple studies showing the effectiveness of regular exercise in cancer prevention, as well as improving outcomes during cancer treatment. Without getting into too much detail, any type of exercise is likely to be a great benefit but the best will be consistent and introduce some variety with a combination of weight training and cardiovascular.


Bonus steps

If those three we’re too easy for you, a more difficult yet powerful preventative for cancer as well as diabetes, heart disease, depression, fatigue, etc, etc… I’m just going to give you a few action steps which will help reduce your environmental toxin intake, increase mitochondria health and can be used in conjunction with a ketogenic diet.

  • Eat organic, non-gmo, veggies when possible and affordable. Here’s a great guide to what’s important and what you can slide  on.
  • Eat organic, grass fed, pasture raised meats. And avoid farm raised fish. Here’s a guide to seafood and fish to choose or avoid based on environmental and heavy metals.
  • Drink more water and tea and limit sweetened drinks like sodas (yes that includes diet sodas which can actually lead to weight gain)