There are hundreds of trillions of friendly (and a handful of unfriendly) organisms in our intestines – it’s warm, safe, and there’s plenty of food in there, making it a great place for them to call home.
We have evolved with these bacteria, and we need them just as much as they need us – they help us to digest our food, provide us with essential nutrients, and contribute to a healthy, happy belly.
When our microbes get out of balance due to the food we eat, antibiotic use, or other factors, there is evidence that the development and progression of tumours (cancers), and our response to cancer drugs, may be altered for the worse.
The Microbiome Link To Cancer Development – How Does This Work?
There have been several methods proposed for how the gut microbiota contributes to cancer, not only in the digestive tract, but throughout the entire body, and the impacts could be far-reaching.
Bacteria are believed to influence cancer risk and progression via several mechanisms, including bacteria’s ability to metabolise (chew up and spit out) whatever we put in our mouths, combined with their profound influence on the health of our immune cells – our defence system.
There is much debate regarding the true percentage of cancers that are caused by microbes, either directly or indirectly, but it remains true that microbes in one way or another can promote or protect us from cancer.
The positive or negative action depends largely on the microbe, or collection of microbes, present. The specifics of which bacteria does what are not yet known for sure.
Research suggests that microbes can alter our susceptibility to the development of tumours, but also influence the progression of cancers, both for better or worse.
This may occur due to the promotion of or the protection from inflammation, DNA changes, and the production of by-products (metabolites) that may promote or protect from cancer.
How Bacteria Work To Block Or Facilitate Chemotherapy Drugs
Like hungry creatures everywhere, bacteria eat whatever food comes their way. This might be food from our lunch, and as unappealing as it may seem to us, a drug we are taking. Bacteria are not very fussy with their food choices.
Studies have found that some chemotherapy drugs are treated as food by certain microbes, which can result in a toxic or useless compound being thrown back into our system, instead of an active drug.
This naturally means the drugs are less likely to work, and the person being treated could have little or no improvement to their cancer. In a fascinating study, mice pre-treated with antibiotics had little to no response to chemotherapy drugs.
Conversely, those with healthy microbiomes had a positive response to cancer drugs. This may account for the diversity of responses to cancer drugs from person to person.
These studies into chemotherapy drugs and the microbiome are currently only in mice, but in future adding healthy microbes to the diets of those undergoing cancer treatment may be part of everyone’s treatment, along with preventative measures using healthy bacteria.
How Can You Help Yourself?
Keeping a healthy gut microbiome is one of the first steps to not only helping prevent the development of some cancers, but should cancer develop, healthy microbes may assist chemotherapy treatments on their journey through your body to ensure maximum impact.