Obesity and Cancer Risk Connection

Are you overweight or even obese?  Even by just a ‘smidge’ by your standards?  Has your body mass index or BMI seen better days?  Is your doctor, spouse, or other loved one expressing concern?  How about you? How do you feel about yourself, your energy, or your abilities?  Why is your weight such a concern, you may ask?  The reality is that your weight is a risk factor for many diseases, but cancer is close to the top. Obesity and being overweight in general, increases your risk of cancer, of any organ system.  This is a well-known fact.  Obesity is a killer on many levels, but very closely linked to many different types of cancer.  Let’s look at why!

Obesity and being overweight in general is a problem in America, and proving to be a slowly developing problem in other countries, likely due to our ‘western’ influence upon their cultures.

Obesity and Cancer
Obesity and Cancer

According to the CDC, 35.7% of young adults are overweight, 42.8% of middle aged, and 41% of older adult Americans.  That equates to roughly 3-4 people out of 10 at a minimum!

If you look at these numbers and then evaluate the rise in health conditions and diseases, there is a correlation.  There is also a rise in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, pulmonary/lung conditions, cognitive ailments, and cancer!  Are they connected?  Absolutely and this determination is not hard to see for the average person that is paying attention.

Obesity and weight gain are multi-factorial, meaning, there are many working parts to the development.  The main contributors include:

  1. Dietary choices
  2. Exercise habits
  3. Mental attitudes/stress
  4. Body type  (endormorph, ectomorph, mesomorph)

Obesity, Overweight, and Inflammation

Throughout clinical research, one theme tends to underlie many chronic health conditions in people, and that theme is the concept of chronic inflammation.  Chronic inflammation is a low level release of inflammatory proteins and chemicals into our bodies, which then inflicts harm upon our cells and their function.  This process is expected as we age, and subsequently is one main contributor to the aging process. However, for most of us, that level of inflammation is increased by various lifestyle choices, which then increases the level of cellular damage, and thus disease incidence.

When you are overweight, several things unfold which create health problems.

First, the excess body weight places additional strain upon organ systems and your joints.  This means your heart may have to pump harder to distribute blood and your joints take on additional load.  When these organ systems and joints get pushed harder and harder, the result is inflammation, and release of inflammatory chemicals into the blood stream.  The end result for you is a taxed heart and aching joints, but could extend further.

Second, when you are overweight, the fat that has accumulated becomes like an organ in and of itself. The fat which is stored begins to secrete its own inflammatory proteins, referred to as adipokines, which then fuel the overall inflammatory state within your body.  This then adds to more cellular changes, stress, and loss of health on many levels, which includes metabolic concerns and even diabetes, not to mention cancer. (Stolarcyzk, 2017)

Third, an overweight or obese body condition is associated with an imbalance in the digestive microbiome, either directly or indirectly, which then can lead to a host of problems in the patient.

Obesity and the Digestive Microbiome

The digestive microbiome present in all of us is closely linked to our health.  Although there are likely billions of different bacteria present within our intestinal tract, there is a state of balance, or harmony present when there is health.  In this state of health, there is an adequate level of ‘good’ bacteria, which offsets the level of the ‘bad’ bacteria.  If you shift this in the other direction, where the ‘bad’ bacteria dominate, then problems develop.

Due to the billions of bacteria present within our digestive tract, it is almost impossible to isolate health or disease down to one or two different types.  Most research will narrow it down to the levels of two main phyla of bacteria, known as Bacteriodetes and Firmicutes.  In a state of health, for the most part, there is perceived balance between these two phyla or groups, meaning they are in the same relative numbers.  Again, if you shift that balance one way or the other, making one group more dominant, then problems can happen.  The reason this happens is that the bacterial groups are not the same, and they ferment or digest food differently, releasing different byproducts into the body which impacts your health.  One example is short chain fatty acids, which are created by both groups, but not equally.  Shift the balance from one side to the other and you impact short chain fatty acid production, which can impact your health.

Research generally indicates that in obese people, there is a relative dominance of Firmicutes over Bacteriodetes.  This then creates problems for these patients in regards to short chain fatty acid production, intestinal pH or acidity, leaky gut concerns, and leakage of LPS or lipopolysaccharide into the blood stream.  This shift in the microbiome is linked to diet, stressors, medications, and many other contributors, but it is not set in stone!  However, it is also not something that one can remedy with a probiotic capsule from a drug store, as even if this option helped, it is a short-lived solution.

The diet you choose to eat directly impacts the digestive microbiome!  This happens mainly due to natural prebiotic properties and phytochemicals of certain foods, which serve as a food substance to encourage growth of the ‘good’ bacteria and naturally inhibit the ‘bad’ bacteria.  Foods and herbs, when properly chosen and utilized can help to maintain that balance that is desired for optimal health.  The wrong foods can do the opposite, reducing beneficial or ‘good’ bacteria, and encourage the growth of the ‘bad’ ones.

Obesity, the Microbiome, and the Cancer Connection

Cancer is a disease of inflammation on a cellular level.  This is a well accepted philosophy in research, also being associated with altered cellular metabolism within the cancer cell.  Given this ‘inflammation’ connection, where is the link with what has been mentioned above?

  1. Obesity, or overweight body condition leads to a higher level of inflammation in the person, mainly due to the release of inflammatory proteins by the fat tissue.
  2. The altered or shifted digestive microbiome balance creates an altered physiology and immune response within the person, impacting health on many levels as well as impaired overall digestion.
  3. The imbalanced digestive microbiome is associated with an altered environment within the digestive tract itself, creating changes in the pH or acidity, local immune response and inflammatory events.  Over time, these changes can lead to what is termed ‘leaky gut syndrome’ or increased permeability of the intestinal wall.  What is normally a barrier of protection for the body becomes weaker, and bacterial by-products, including LPS or lipopolysaccharide, leak out of the intestine and into the blood stream where it contributes to inflammation in the body.
  4. Obesity is often associated with increased levels of insulin, referred to as ‘hyperinsulinemia’, which is used not just for sugar metabolism, but is a cellular signaling protein itself.  Higher levels of insulin, which are closely linked with inflammatory events in the body, are closely linked with higher rates of cancer and progression of the disease. (Doerstling, 2017)

These are just 4 factors out of many, which pave the way for the increased incidence of cancer in the obese or overweight individual.  Ironically, these are also the same pathways for which obesity is linked with many other health ailments, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

While there are many working ‘arms’ in the puzzle surrounding cancer, one thing stands clear and obvious and that is the connection with the chosen diet and other lifestyle factors.  Through the proper diet, herbal usage, and modification of lifestyle factors, it may be possible to curb the incidence of cancer, reduce body weight, and improve overall health in the average person.


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN








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