Cancer Cures in South African Kitchen Cupboards
According to research, cancer is unfortunately set to increase massively in South Africa over the next 15 years or so; the good news is that local researchers studying the anti-cancer properties of indigenous plants have come up with some promising findings.
According to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the change from traditional to Western lifestyles, characterised by low levels of physical activity and diets high in fat and processed carbohydrates, will see incidence of cancer increase by a massive 70% in low- and middle-income countries by 2030.
According to various research projects, some of which are still ongoing, there are quite a few anti-cancer foods that can be found in our own kitchen cupboards or gardens in South Africa.
Research studying the anti-cancer properties of common indigenous plants has featured Rooibos rather prominently. This fynbos variety which is unique to the semi-arid regions of the Western- and Eastern Cape is high in antioxidants that prevent DNA cell damage caused by free radicals (a normal by-product of certain body processes that can be exacerbated through external pollutants such as cigarette smoke).
Cancer occurs when cells go haywire and mutate – potentially from cell damage from free radicals. By keeping the cells in check, rooibos’s antioxidants are believed to halt the progression of cancer.
While most research so far has shown rooibos’s ability to help prevent cancer, Stellenbosch University (SU) biochemist Prof Amanda Swart presented findings last year that showed that rooibos might also aid in the treatment of cancer.
While more research is needed, results of tests conducted in cell cultures in the lab showed that, in prostate cancer, rooibos extract interferes with the production of a male sex hormone, dihydrotestosterone, that has been identified as a driving force in prostate cancer. This is similar to the action of current drugs used in the treatment of prostate cancer.
The Cancer Association of South Africa has endorsed the herbal tea’s potential as a form of natural chemoprevention. This means it can aid in preventing cancer and even possibly reduce the growth of cancer cells, and has funded research projects aimed at identifying the active ingredients.
Honeybush is a cousin to Rooibos, and there are indications that it may have therapeutic benefits to protect against breast cancer.
The idea of testing honeybush for medicinal purposes came from anecdotes from communities in the Eastern Cape’s Langkloof of locals using it to treat menopause.
Molecular testing showed that honeybush extract had phyto-oestrogentic potential (chemicals that occur naturally in plants have the ability to either block o proliferate oestrogen).
Two out of three breast cancers are oestrogen-receptor (ER) positive, which means they grow in response to the hormone oestrogen. There are two main types of ER, alpha and beta. Alpha proliferate oestrogen and fuels ER-positive breast cancer, while beta blocks it.
Treatment for ER-positive breast cancer aims to reduce the level of ER alpha. Honeybush has shown to not only reduce ER alpha, but to increase beta, thereby delivering a double punch.
Environmental conditions however, mean that not all honeybush harvests contain these specific phytochemicals that only seem to develop under specific environmental conditions, like extreme heat or drought. Researchers have not been able to figure out what these environmental conditions entail and for the moment have to test each harvest for the required phytochemicals, so although honeybush-derived therapy may one day be used as a second-line drug against ER-positive breast cancer that shows resistance against first-line drugs like Tamoxifen, far more research needs to be done first.
The Sutherlandia Frutescens Plant (kankerbos)
Sutherlandia frutescens is indigenous to South Africa, Lesotho, southern Namibia and southeastern Botswana. It is commonly used in traditional medicine. This shrub-like plant has bitter, aromatic leaves and is known for its red-orange flowers during spring to mid-summer.
Studies show that it has anti-cancer properties against oesophageal, prostate, liver, breast and lung cancer cells. Recent studies proposed that cancer bush, the name it is commonly known by, may be a promising adjunctive therapy because of its potent anti-oxidative properties.
Preliminary clinical studies proved that it had no negative effects. And the indications are that it may act as an immune stimulant to support the cancer patient. It has been made into tablet form and commercialised but studies are continuing to produce more definitive evidence of its benefits.
It is currently being marketed as a natural remedy that can be used alongside conventional treatment.
Garlic is a herb (did you know that?) which has long been hailed for its medicinal properties and has been a staple in healers’ arsenals for centuries. It has also been known to have an anti-cancer effect, although no one understood how it worked – until now…
Dr Catherine Kaschula, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, has been exploring the cancer-killing properties of garlic, and explained that when garlic is crushed, a compound called allicin, which is also responsible for the pungent smell, is released.
Although it is a great antibacterial agent, allicin itself is not cytotoxic (cancer-killing). However, after some time, allicin transforms into other compounds, of which one, ajoene is cytotoxic.
Kaschula’s research has shown that ajoene actually penetrates cancer cells and sticks itself to proteins within a certain part of the cell, causing the cancer cell to die.
While she has not actually been able to quantify exactly how much garlic you one needs to eat to get the benefits, Kaschula suggests regularly incorporating it into your cooking to ensure that you have healthy levels of ajoene in your system.
While much of this research is still in rather early stages, it offers hope in the face of the projected massive increase in cancer incidence in South Africa, and the fact that these are all locally-grown and healthy for one in any event bodes well.