Dietary Cure for Hidradenitis Suppurativa

What is the role of dairy- and yeast-exclusion diets on arresting and reversing an inflammatory autoimmune disease?

A landmark study suggested that exposure to dietary yeast, like baker’s yeast, brewer’s yeast, and nutritional yeast, may worsen the course of Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease. The reason the researchers even thought to do the study was because Crohn’s patients tend to have elevated levels of antibodies to yeast, but Crohn’s is not the only autoimmune disease with increased yeast antibodies. The same has been found in lupus patients, found in rheumatoid arthritis, found in another joint disease called ankylosing spondylitis, found in autoimmune liver disease, and also found in autoimmune thyroid disease. So, might avoiding yeast help those conditions, too? They haven’t been put to the test, but hidradenitis suppurativa has. What is that? I discuss this in my video Dietary Cure for Hidradenitis Suppurativa.

Hidradenitis suppurativa can be a gruesome disease. It starts out with just pimples, typically along parts of the body where there are folds, such as the armpits, groins, buttocks, and under the breast. Then, painful nodules form that turn into abscesses and drain a thick, foul-smelling pus. And then? It gets even worse, forming active tunnels of pus inside your body.

And, it is not that rare. It has an estimated prevalence of about 1 to 4 percent, which is like 1 in 50. Clothes typically cover it up so it remains hidden, but you can often smell the pus oozing out of people. There are all sorts of surgical options and chemotherapy, but why did researchers even think to try diet for the condition? I mean, since Crohn’s is a disease of intestinal inflammation, you can see how a food you react to could make matters worse, but why a disease of armpit inflammation? Because there seems to be a link between hidradenitis suppurativa and Crohn’s disease. Having one may make you five times more likely to have the other, so there may be an “immunopathogenic link” between the two—they may share similar abnormal immune responses. Given that, if cutting yeast out of Crohn’s patients’ diets helps them, then maybe cutting it out of the diets of people with hidradenitis suppurativa might help them. A dozen patients with hidradenitis suppurativa were put on a diet that eliminated foods with yeast, like bread and beer, and they all got better, 12 out of 12. There was an “immediate stabilization of their clinical symptoms, and the skin lesions regressed,” that is, reversed, and went away within a year on the diet. Okay, but how do we know it was the yeast? By cutting out a food like pizza, you also may be cutting out a lot of dairy, and that also appears to help. Indeed, a dairy-free diet led to improvement in about five out of six patients.

See, those tunnels of pus are caused by the rupturing of the same kind of sebaceous glands that can cause regular acne. In hidradenitis suppurativa, however, they explode, and “[d]airy products contain 3 components that drive the process that blocks the duct [clogging your pores] and contributes to its leakage, rupture, and ultimate explosion.” First, there’s casein, which elevates IGF-1. (I have about a dozen videos on IGF-1.) Second, the whey and lactose, and third, the hormones in the milk itself—six hormones produced by the cow, her placenta, and mammary glands that end up in the milk. So, why not try cutting out dairy to see if things improve?

There is a whole series of nasty drugs you can use to try to beat back the inflammation, but as soon as you stop taking them, the disease can come roaring back. Even after extensive surgery, the disease comes back in 25 to 50 percent of cases, so we are desperate to research new treatment options. But, patients aren’t waiting. They’re getting together in online communities, sharing their trial and error though social media, and people have reported successes cutting out dairy and refined carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar. So, a dermatologist in New Hampshire decided to give dairy-free a try, and 83 percent of the hidradenitis suppurativa patients he tried it on started to get better. What’s more, he didn’t even try cutting the sugar and flour out of their diets. Now, he didn’t conduct a clinical trial or anything. He just figured why not give dairy-free a go? It’s not easy to conduct randomized, clinical, dietary interventions, but that doesn’t stop individual patients from giving things a try. I mean, you can understand why there have to be institutional review boards and the like when trying out new, risky drugs and surgeries, but if it’s just a matter of trying a switch from cow’s milk to soy milk, for example, why do they have to wait? “As patients search for an effective path to clearance [of this horrible disease], they need support and guidance to follow the most healthful diet available, free of dairy and highly processed sugar and flour. Nothing could be more natural.”

But what about the yeast? How do we know it was the yeast? In the study we discussed earlier, 8 of the 12 patients had just gone through surgery, so maybe that’s why they got so much better. It’s similar to when I hear that someone with cancer had gone through the conventional route of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation before going to some questionable clinic and then attributes their cure to the wheatgrass colonics or whatever else they got. How do they know it wasn’t the chemo/surgery/radiation that saved them? Well, in this study, why do we suspect it was the yeast? Because not only did every single one of the patients get better, “all the patients demonstrated an immediate recurrence of skin lesions following accidental or voluntary consumption of beer or other foods” like bread. So, not only did the elimination of yeast result in “rapid stabilization” and “a slow, but complete, regression of the skin lesions within a year,” but, in every single case, within 24 to 48 hours of taking a little brewer’s yeast or other “yeast-containing foods,” BAM!—the symptoms were back. So, that’s why the researchers concluded a “simple exclusion diet could promote the resolution of the skin lesions involved in this disabling and [perhaps not so] rare disease.”

What was the response in the medical community to this remarkable, landmark study? “Why was there no mention of informed consent and ethics committee approval…?” Letter after letter to the editor of the journal complained that the researchers had violated the Declaration of Helsinki, which is like the Nuremburg Code or Geneva Convention to protect against involuntary human experimentation, and asked where was the institutional review board approval for this yeast-exclusion study? In response, the researchers simply replied that they had just told them to avoid a few foods. They had given them the choice: We can put you on drugs that can have side effects, such as liver problems, or you can try out this diet. “The patients preferred the diet.” Let’s not forget, I would add, that they were all cured!

Anyway, bottom line, by avoiding foods, like pizza, which contains both dairy and yeast, sufferers may be able to prevent the ravages of the disease.


This is the fourth and final installment of a video series on the role baker’s, brewer’s, and nutritional yeast may play in certain autoimmune diseases. If you missed any of the others, see:

For more on dairy hormones, see:

Check out our IGF-1 topic page if you’re unfamiliar with this cancer-promoting growth hormone, which I highlight in my video Animal Protein Compared to Cigarette Smoking.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Is Nutritional Yeast Healthy for Everyone?

Those with certain autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease should probably not eat nutritional yeast.

Thousands of years ago, some yeast floated down into our flour and drinks, pleasing our palates, and we’ve been regularly exposed to it ever since. Yeast isn’t a problem for most people, but even non-disease-causing microbes could potentially trigger autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease in those who are susceptible because their finely tuned immune balance is somehow off. Maybe that’s why bakers have the highest Crohn’s disease mortality and, from a different data set, also have among the highest rates of Crohn’s disease, as you can see at 0:30 in my video Is Nutritional Yeast Healthy for Everyone? Perhaps a “hypersensitivity to baker’s yeast…may play a role in Crohn’s disease.”

If you take people with Crohn’s and remove from their diets the three foods to which they appear to have the most antibodies, in order to try to calm their disease, and then add those foods back, you can provoke the symptoms once again and re-stimulate the inflammation. So, for example, an anal fistula gets nice and dry off those foods, starts oozing again once the foods are back in the diet, and then the spigot’s turned back off when the foods are removed once more, as you can see (ew!) at 0:57 in my video.

However, without a control group, you can’t exclude the possibility of a powerful placebo effect. There hadn’t been any such randomized controlled trials until researchers came up with a brilliant design. They tested people with Crohn’s for antibodies to 16 different foods and then randomized the subjects into two groups. Both groups were told to avoid four foods, but one group was told to avoid the four foods they reacted most to, while the other group was told to avoid the foods they reacted least to. The group assignments were given in sealed envelopes, so no one knew who was in which group until the end. So, did it matter? Yes, more than twice the probability of major clinical improvement was seen in the group told to stay away from the four foods their blood reacted most to—but that wasn’t just yeast. In fact, the “exclusion of milk, pork, beef, and egg was most strongly associated with improvement,” leading the researchers to suggest that perhaps instead of doing fancy blood tests, we should just tell our patients to cut out meat and eggs and see how they do. This would be consistent with population studies that associate “diets high in animal fat” with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases, as well as interventional studies showing that a plant-based diet, in which meat is cut down to about one serving every two weeks, can drop relapse rates as low as an extraordinary 8 percent over two years.

But, what about the whole yeast question? Can’t you just put some yeast up someone’s butt and see what happens? Why, yes! Yes, you can, and researchers have. Indeed, researchers tested rectal exposure to six different foods, including yeast, in Crohn’s disease patients. This was kind of like a skin prick test, but instead of pricking the skin, they pricked the inside of people’s rectums with various foods. You can see at 3:00 in my video the various prick sites for the different foods, and it’s clear that yeast gave the most significant reaction in Crohn’s patients.

It appears that baker’s yeast, which is the same yeast as brewer’s yeast and nutritional yeast, may indeed have disease-causing importance in Crohn’s disease, but the good news would then be that it “may be of therapeutic relevance.” If Crohn’s patients went on a yeast-free diet, would they feel better? You don’t know until you put it to the test.

In fact, that’s exactly what the original study linking yeast and Crohn’s disease suggested back in 1988. “A controlled trial of a yeast free diet for patients with Crohn’s disease may therefore be worth while.” Why did it take years before such a study was done? Well, who’s going to fund it? Big Soda Bread? Thankfully, there are charities like the National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s disease, willing to put up the (yeast-free) dough.

Nineteen patients with Crohn’s disease ate their regular diet for a month and were then switched to a yeast-exclusion diet. There was a significantly higher CDAI, Crohn’s Disease Activity Index, which assesses symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea, during the period when they were eating yeast, compared to the yeast-free period. So, there was worse disease activity with yeast than without. Okay, but what was this yeast-free diet? They didn’t just cut out bread and beer. The researchers switched people from dairy milk to soy milk and from white flour to whole wheat, for example. Just cutting out milk can sometimes help with inflammatory bowel disease, as you can see at 4:43 in my video.

So, with so many dietary changes, how do we know what role the yeast played? This is how we know what role the yeast played: After placing the subjects on the new yeast-free diet, they then challenged the Crohn’s sufferers with either a capsule of yeast or a placebo. A tiny amount of yeast, like giving them a quarter teaspoon of nutritional yeast a day, made them worse, suggesting “yeast may be important in the pathogenesis [disease process] of Crohn’s disease.”

Now, for the vast majority of people, yeast is not a problem, but in susceptible individuals, it may trigger an abnormal immune response in the gut. But, wait. I thought the paratuberculosis bug was considered a trigger for Crohn’s disease. Well, maybe infection with paraTB is what “induces a hypersensitivity response to dietary yeast.” Who knows? The bottom line is that people with Crohn’s disease should not go out of their way to add baker’s, brewer’s, or nutritional yeast to their diets.

I introduced this topic in Does Nutritional Yeast Trigger Crohn’s Disease?, then took a bit of a tangent with Is Candida Syndrome Real?. Next, I finish up this video series by talking about another autoimmune disease that appears to be affected: Dietary Cure for Hidradenitis Suppurativa.


For more on Crohn’s, see Preventing Crohn’s Disease with Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease

And paratubercuwhat? See Does Paratuberculosis in Milk Trigger Type 1 Diabetes? and Does Paratuberculosis in Meat Trigger Type 1 Diabetes?

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In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup

I recommend people switch away from using rice milk

For kids and teens, the amount of arsenic flowing through their bodies was found to be about 15 percent higher for each quarter cup of rice consumed per day, and a similar link was found in adults. A study of pregnant women found that consuming about a half cup of cooked rice per day could raise urine arsenic levels as much as drinking a liter of arsenic-contaminated water at the current upper federal safety limit. These findings “suggest that many people in the United States may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of arsenic through rice consumption.” which I explore in my video Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup.

Do you know where Americans get most of their rice arsenic? From Rice Krispies, though brown rice crisps cereal may have twice as much, as I discuss in my video Arsenic in Rice Milk, Rice Krispies, and Brown Rice Syrup.

“Organic brown rice syrup (OBRS) is used as a sweetener in organic food products as an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup.” Big mistake, as organic brown rice syrup products “may introduce significant concentrations” of toxic arsenic into people’s diets. For example, two energy chews sweetened with brown rice syrup might hit the provisional upper daily arsenic intake based on the water standards.

“Toddler formulas with added organic brown rice syrup have 20 times higher levels of inorganic [toxic] arsenic than regular formulas,” and in older children, thanks to brown rice syrup, a few cereal bars a day “could pose a very high cancer risk.”

What about rice milk? A consensus statement of both the European and North American societies for pediatric nutrition recommends the “avoidance of rice drinks for infants and young children,” and, generally, toxic “inorganic arsenic intake in infancy and childhood should be as low as possible.”

To this end, the United Kingdom has banned the consumption of rice milk for young children, a notion with which Consumer Reports concurred, recommending no servings a week of rice milk for children and no more than half a cup a day for adults, as you can see at 1:56 in my video.

The arsenic in various brands of rice milk ranges wildly—in fact, there’s a 15-fold difference between the highest and lowest contamination, suggesting manufacturers could make low arsenic rice milk if they wanted. As you can see at 2:16 in my video, Consumer Reports found rice drinks from Pacific and Rice Dream brands were right about average, though, for Rice Dream, it appears the vanilla or chocolate flavors may be lower. It doesn’t seem we have anything to worry about with rice vinegar, but rice pasta and rice cakes end up similar to pure rice in terms of arsenic levels, which makes sense because that’s pretty much what they are—pure rice. However, pasta is boiled, so we’d expect the levels to be cut 40 to 60 percent, like when you boil and drain rice.

If you just couldn’t live without rice milk for some reason, you could make your own using lower arsenic rice, like brown basmati from India, Pakistan, or California, but then your homemade rice milk might have even less nutrition, as most of the commercial brands are at least fortified. Better options might be soy, oat, hemp, or almond milk, though you don’t want kids to be drinking too much almond milk. There have been a few case reports of little kids drinking four cups a day and running into kidney stone problems due to its relatively high oxalate content, which averages about five times more than soy milk. More on oxalates in my video series starting with Oxalates in Spinach and Kidney Stones: Should We Be Concerned?

I have about 40 videos that touch on soy milk, discussing such topics as how it may normalize development in girls and reduce breast cancer risk, as well reduce prostate cancer risk in men. Some of the latest science on soy milk includes an association with better knee x-rays, suggesting protection from osteoarthritis, and an interventional study suggesting improved gut health by boosting the growth of good bacteria. However, drinking 3 quarts a day, which is 10 to 12 daily cups, for a year may inflame your liver, but two cups a day can have an extraordinary effect on your cholesterol, causing a whopping 25 percent drop in bad cholesterol after just 21 days.

An ounce and a half of almonds, about a handful, each day, can drop LDL cholesterol 13 percent in six weeks and reduce abdominal fat, though a cup of almond milk only contains about ten almonds, which is less than a third of what was used in the study. So, it’s not clear if almond milk helps much, but there was a study on oat milk compared to rice milk. As you can see at 4:37 in my video, five weeks of oat milk lowered bad cholesterol, whereas rice milk didn’t, and even increased triglycerides and may bump blood pressure a bit. However, the oat milk only dropped LDL about 5 percent and that was with three cups a day. As plant-based alternatives go, it appears soy milk wins the day.

So, why drink rice milk at all when there are such better options? There really isn’t much nutrition in rice milk. In fact, there are case reports of severe malnutrition in toddlers whose diets were centered around rice milk due to multiple food allergies. Infants and toddlers have increased protein requirements compared to adults, so if the bulk of a child’s diet is rice milk, coconut milk, potato milk, or almond milk, they may not get enough, as you can see at 5:23 in my video. In fact, cases of kwashiorkor—that bloated-belly protein- and calorie-deficient state of malnutrition—due to rice milk have been reported in Ethiopia…and Atlanta, Georgia, because literally 99 percent of the child’s diet was rice milk. So, these malnutrition cases were not because they drank rice milk, but rather because they drank rice milk nearly exclusively. I just use these examples to illustrate the relative lack of nutrition in rice milk. If you’re going to choose a milk alternative, you might as well go for one that has less arsenic—and more nutrition.

I have released several videos on soy milk, but only one on almond milk video so far: Prostate Cancer and Organic Milk vs. Almond Milk. I plan on producing many more on choosing between various milk options, so stay tuned.


If you’ve missed any of the useful material on dietary arsenic I’ve also shared, please see:

The final four videos in this series take all of this information and try to distill it into practical recommendations:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

Can Soy Prevent and Treat Prostate Cancer?

As I discuss in my video The Role of Soy Foods in Prostate Cancer Prevention and Treatment, a compilation of 13 observational studies on soy food consumption and the risk of prostate cancer found that soy foods appear to be “protective.” What are observational studies? As opposed to interventional studies, in observational studies, researchers observe what people are eating but don’t intervene and try to change their diets. In these studies, they observed that men who ate more soy foods had lower rates of prostate cancer, but the problem with observational studies is that there could be confounding factors. For example, “people who choose to eat soy also make other lifestyle decisions that lower the risk of cancer (e.g., lower fat intake, higher vegetable and fruit intake, more frequent exercise),” maybe that is why they have less cancer. Most of the studies tried to control for these other lifestyle factors, but you can’t control for everything. What’s more, most of the studies were done in Asia, so maybe tofu consumption is just a sign of eating a more traditional diet. Is it possible that the reason non-tofu consumers got more cancer is that they had abandoned their traditional diet? If only we could look at a Western population that ate a lot of soy. We can: the Seventh-Day Adventists.

In the 1970s, more than 12,000 Adventist men were asked about their use of soy milk and then were followed for up to 16 years to see who got cancer and who did not. So, what did they find? Frequent consumption of soy milk was associated with a whopping 70 percent reduction of the risk of prostate cancer, as you can see at 1:33 in my video. Similarly, in a multiethnic study that involved a number of groups, soy intake appeared protective in Latinos, too.

Prostate cells carry beta type estrogen receptors, which appear to act as a tumor suppressor, a kind of “gatekeeper…inhibiting invasion, proliferation and…preventing” the prostate cells from turning cancerous. And, those are the receptors targeted by the phytoestrogens in soy, like genistein, which inhibits prostate cancer cell invasion and spread in a petri dish at the kind of levels one might get consuming soy foods. The prevention of metastases is critical, as death from prostate cancer isn’t caused by the original tumor, but its spread throughout the body, which explains why it “is recommended that men with prostate cancer consume soy foods, such as soybeans, tofu, miso and tempeh.”

Wait a moment. Dean Ornish and his colleagues got amazing results, apparently reversing the progression of prostate cancer with a plant-based diet and lifestyle program. Was it because of the soy? Their study didn’t just include a vegan diet, but a vegan diet supplemented with a daily serving of tofu and a soy protein isolate powder. There have been studies showing that men given soy protein powders develop less prostate cancer than the control group, but what was the control group getting? Milk protein powder. Those randomized to the milk group got six times more prostate cancer than the soy group, but was that due to the beneficial effects of soy or the deleterious effects of the dairy? Dairy products are not just associated with getting prostate cancer, but also with dying from prostate cancer. Men diagnosed with prostate cancer who then ate more dairy tended to die sooner, and “both low-fat and high-fat dairy consumption were positively associated with an increased risk of fatal outcome.”

The best study we have on soy protein powder supplementation for prostate cancer patients found no significant benefit, and neither did a series of soy phytoestrogen dietary supplements. But, perhaps that’s because they used isolated soy components rather than a whole soy food. “Taking the whole-food approach may be more efficacious,” but it can be hard to do controlled studies with whole foods: You can make fake pills, but how do you give people placebo tofu?

A group of Australian researchers creatively came up with a specially manufactured bread containing soy grits to compare to a placebo regular bread and gave slices to men diagnosed with prostate cancer awaiting surgery. As you can see at 4:31 in my video, they saw a remarkable difference in just about three weeks time. It was the first study to show that a diet incorporating a whole soy food could favorably affect prostate cancer markers, but you can’t just go out and buy soy grit bread. Another study was a little more practical. Twenty men with prostate cancer who had been treated with radiation or surgery but seemed to be relapsing were asked to drink three cups of regular soy milk a day. The PSA levels in each of the 20 patients were all rising before they started the soy milk, suggesting they had relapsing or metastatic cancer growing inside of them. However, during a year drinking soy milk, 6 out of the 20 subjects got better, 2 got worse, and the remaining 12 remained unchanged, as you can see from 5:02 in my video. So, they concluded that soy food may help in a subset of patients.

Based on all these studies, the results Ornish and his colleagues got were probably due to more than just the soy. Similarly, the low prostate cancer rates in Asia are probably because of more than just the soy, since the lowest rates are also found in parts of Africa, where I don’t think they’re eating a lot of tofu. Indeed, in the multiethnic study, other types of beans besides soy also appeared protective for Latinos and all the groups put together, when looking at the most aggressive forms of prostate cancer. So, the protection associated with plant-based diets may be due to eating a variety of healthy foods. 


That soy milk stat from the Adventist study is astounding. What about fermented soy foods, though? That was the subject of Fermented or Unfermented Soy Foods for Prostate Cancer Prevention?.

Reversing the progression of cancer? See How Not to Die from Cancer.

Given the power of diet, it’s amazing to me how difficult Changing a Man’s Diet After a Prostate Cancer Diagnosis can be. It’s not all or nothing, though. Check out Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio.

For soy and breast cancer survival, see Is Soy Healthy for Breast Cancer Survivors?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Fermented or Unfermented Soy?

As you can see at the start of my video Fermented or Unfermented Soy Foods for Prostate Cancer Prevention?, there is an enormous variation in the rates of prostate cancer around the globe, with among the highest rates in the United States and lowest rates in Asia—though that may be changing. The largest increase in prostate cancer rates in the world in recent decades has been in South Korea, for example: a 13-fold increase in prostate cancer deaths nationwide. Researchers suggested the increase in animal foods may have played a role, since that was the biggest change in their diet over that period, with nearly an 850 percent increase.

This is consistent with what we know in general about foods and the prevention and management of prostate cancer. Tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, and soy foods appear to decrease risk, there’s no clear benefit from fish, but there is an increased risk associated with meat and dairy, as you can see at 0:52 in my video. This may be because a diet based around whole plant foods “may effectively reduce inflammation in the body.”

There is also a genetic factor. If you have a first-degree relative with prostate cancer, you may be at three-fold higher risk, but non-genetic factors may increase your risk 300-fold. How do we know the low rates in Asia aren’t genetic? Because when Asians move to the United States, their rates shoot up, “and by the second generation, the incidence rate [is] already approaching that of average Americans.” This may be because of more Burger Kings and Dairy Queens, but could also be because of eating fewer protective foods, such as soy.

A systematic review of all soy and prostate cancer population studies to date confirmed that soy foods are associated with lower the risk, but that’s a relatively broad category. There are all sorts of soy foods. There are fermented soy foods, like miso and tempeh, and unfermented ones, like tofu and soy milk. Which are more protective? Researchers sifted through the studies, and it turns out that only the unfermented soy seemed to help. Tofu and soy milk consumption was associated with about a 30 percent reduction in risk, whereas there didn’t appear to be any protection linked to fermented soy foods.


What about other healthy plant foods, like broccoli and turmeric? See what they can do in Best Supplements for Prostate Cancer.

Dean Ornish and his colleagues got amazing results, apparently reversing the progression of prostate cancer with a plant-based diet and lifestyle program. Do you think it could be because of the soy? It wasn’t just a vegan diet, but a vegan diet supplemented with a daily serving of tofu and a soy protein isolate powder. Find out in The Role of Soy Foods in Prostate Cancer Prevention and Treatment.

More on the number-one cancer among men:

What about soy and breast cancer? I’m glad you asked!

Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy? Watch the video to find out!

In health, 

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Does Drinking Soy Milk Do to Hormone Levels?

The vast majority of breast cancers start out hormone-dependent, where estradiol, the primary human estrogen, “plays a crucial role in their breast cancer development and progression.” That’s one of the reasons why soy food consumption appears so protective against breast cancer: Soy phytoestrogens, like genistein, act as estrogen-blockers and block the binding of estrogens, such as estradiol, to breast cancer cells, as you can see at 0:24 in my video How to Block Breast Cancer’s Estrogen-Producing Enzymes.

Wait a second. The majority of breast cancers occur after menopause when the ovaries have stopped producing estrogen. What’s the point of eating estrogen-blockers if there’s no estrogen to block? It turns out that breast cancer tumors produce their own estrogen from scratch to fuel their own growth.

As you can see at 1:03 in my video, “estrogens may be formed in breast tumors by two pathways, namely the aromatase pathway and sulfatase pathway.” The breast cancer takes cholesterol and produces its own estrogen using either the aromatase enzyme or two hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzymes.

So, there are two ways to stop breast cancer. One is to use anti-estrogens—that is, estrogen-blockers—like the soy phytoestrogens or the anti-estrogen drug tamoxifen. “However, another way to block estradiol is by using anti-enzymes” to prevent the breast cancer from making all the estrogen in the first place. And, indeed, there are a variety of anti-aromatase drugs in current use. In fact, inhibiting the estrogen production has been shown to be more effective than just trying to block the effects of the estrogen, “suggesting that the inhibition of estrogen synthesis is clinically very important for the treatment of estrogen-dependent breast cancer.”

It turns out that soy phytoestrogens can do both.

Using ovary cells taken from women undergoing in vitro fertilization, soy phytoestrogens were found to reduce the expression of the aromatase enzyme. What about in breast cancer cells, though? This occurred in breast cancer cells, too, and not only was aromatase activity suppressed, but that of the other estrogen-producing enzyme, as well. But this was in a petri dish. Does soy also suppress estrogen production in people?

Well, as you can see at 2:34 in my video, circulating estrogen levels appear significantly lower in Japanese women than Caucasian American women, and Japan does have the highest per-capita soy food consumption, but you can’t know it’s the soy until you put it to the test. Japanese women were randomized to add soy milk to their diet or not for a few months. Estrogen levels successfully dropped about a quarter in the soy milk supplemented group. Interestingly, as you can see at 3:04 in my video, when the researchers tried the same experiment in men, they got similar results: a significant drop in female hormone levels, with no change in testosterone levels.

These results, though, are in Japanese men and women who were already consuming soy in their baseline diet. So, the study was really just looking at higher versus lower soy intake. What happens if you give soy milk to women in Texas? As you can see at 3:29 in my video, circulating estrogen levels were cut in half. Since increased estrogen levels are “markers for high risk for breast cancer,” the effectiveness of soy in reducing estrogen levels may help explain why Chinese and Japanese women have such low rates of breast cancer. What’s truly remarkable is that estrogen levels stayed down for a month or two even after the subjects stopped drinking soy milk, which suggests you don’t have to consume soy every day to have the cancer protective benefit.

Wait, soy protects against breast cancer? Yes, in study after study after study—and even in women at high risk. Watch my video BRCA Breast Cancer Genes and Soy for the full story.

 What about if you already have breast cancer? In that case, see Is Soy Healthy for Breast Cancer Survivors?

 And what about GMO soy? Get the facts in GMO Soy and Breast Cancer.

 Okay, then, Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy? Watch my video and find out.


What else can we do to decrease breast cancer risk? See:

 You may also be interested in:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What About the Sodium in Miso?

According to the second World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research expert report, “[s]alt is a probable cause of stomach cancer,” one of the world’s leading cancer killers. If the report’s estimate of an 8 percent increase in risk for every extra gram of salt a day is correct, then in a country like the United Kingdom, nearly 1,700 cases of stomach cancer happen every year just because of excess salt intake, as you can see at 0:27 in my video Is Miso Healthy?, and, in a country like the United States, it would be thousands more annually.

The risk of stomach cancer associated with salt intake appears on par with smoking or heavy alcohol use, but may only be half as bad as opium use or increased total meat consumption, as you can see at 0:43 in my video. These findings were based on a study of more than a half million people, which may explain why those eating meatless diets appear to have nearly two-thirds lower risk.

We know dietary salt intake is directly associated with the risk of stomach cancer, and the higher the intake, the higher the risk. A meta-analysis went one step further and looked at specific salt-rich foods: pickled foods, salted fish, processed meat, and miso soup. Habitual consumption of pickled foods, salted fish, and processed meat were each associated with about a 25 percent greater risk of stomach cancer. The pickled foods may explain why Korea, where the pickled cabbage dish kimchi is a staple, appears to have the highest stomach cancer rates in the world, as you can see at 1:39 in my video. But researchers found there was no significant association with the consumption of miso soup. This may be because the carcinogenic effects of the salt in miso soup are counteracted by the anti-carcinogenic effects of the soy, effectively canceling out the risk. And, if we made garlicky soup with some scallions thrown in, our cancer risk may drop even lower, as you can see at 2:06 in my video.

Cancer isn’t the primary reason people are told to avoid salt, though. What about miso soup and high blood pressure? Similar to the relationship between miso and cancer, the salt in miso pushes up our blood pressures, but miso’s soy protein may be relaxing them down. If we compare the effects of soy milk to cow’s milk, for example, and, to make it even more fair, compare soy milk to skim cow’s milk to avoid the saturated butter fat, soy milk can much more dramatically improve blood pressure among women with hypertension, as you can see at 2:43 in my video. But would the effect be dramatic enough to counter all the salt in miso? Japanese researchers decided to put it to the test.

For four years, they followed men and women in their 60s, who, at the start of the study, had normal blood pressure, to see who was more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension in that time: those who had two or more bowls of miso soup a day or those who had one or less. Two bowls a day may add a half teaspoon of salt to one’s daily diet, yet those who had two or more bowls of miso soup every day appeared to have five times lower risk of becoming hypertensive. So, maybe the anti-hypertensive effects of the soy in the miso exceed the hypertensive effects of the salt.


Indeed, miso paste, a whole soy food, can be used as a “green light” source of saltiness when cooking. That’s why I used it in my pesto recipe in How Not to Die and in my How Not to Die Cookbook. It can help you in Shaking the Salt Habit.

Not convinced that salt is bad for you? Check out these videos:

Not convinced that soy is good for you? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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