New research published this week in Nature Immunology has discovered that obesity limits the body’s natural anti-cancer systems. While the association between obesity and cancer has been well-documented, the mechanisms by which obesity inhibits the immune system have not. In this groundbreaking study, researchers have shown that fat cells prevent natural killer and other immune cells from destroying cancer.
More than a third of the world’s population is obese, contributing to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. In fact, nearly half of certain cancers are thought to be due to obesity. And despite a deluge of public health efforts, the problem only seems to be getting worse. While many of the health risks associated with being overweight are well-understood, there is one risk which is not:
The concept of immune surveillance is relatively straightforward. The immune system is our best defense against disease and plays an important role in combating cancer. But tumor cells have a unique ability to escape immune surveillance, by mutating and disguising themselves as other cells. That’s where natural killer cells come in.
Natural killer (NK) cells are white blood cells found in our lymphatic system. These cells are uniquely designed to hunt cancerous cells and destroy them, hence the name “natural killer”. When it comes to the immune system, these cells are our first and best defense against cancer. Healthy NK cells are absolutely vital in your body’s battle with disease.
But what’s the connection between obesity and cancer?
Unfortunately, this new study has found that obesity actually inhibits the ability of NK cells to destroy cancerous or precancerous cells. While NK cells are still able to seek and find tumors, the mechanisms through which they destroy cancer cells are blocked up with fat cells. This is referred to as “metabolic paralysis” and renders NK cells virtually useless in the fight against cancer.
Professor Lydia Lynch, a professor of immunology and the lead researcher on the study, believes the damage to NK cells can be reversed.
Despite increased public awareness, the prevalence of obesity and related diseases continue. Therefore, there is increased urgency to understand the pathways whereby obesity causes cancer and leads to other diseases, and to develop new strategies to prevent their progression.
Our results highlight immuno-metabolic pathways as a promising target to reverse immune defects in obesity and suggest that metabolic reprogramming of Natural Killer cells may kick-start their anti-cancer activity and improve treatment outcomes.”
The good news is that the damage inflicted on the immune system by obesity can be reversed. Metabolic paralysis can be overcome by kick-starting the metabolic function of natural killer cells. Professor Lynch even theorizes that the damage to NK cells may also explain the increased risk of infection in obese patients. If that’s true, restoring the metabolic function of these cells may have even greater effects.
The sad news is that all of these problems are preventable. Shutting down our natural immune systems is just one of the ways that obesity increases our risk for cancer and other disease. It also leads to inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, and other health risks that extend beyond cancer. Simply improving our diet and lifestyle can greatly reduce our risks of these diseases, so why isn’t anyone listening?
There are several ways to help keep your natural killer cells healthy, abundant, and strong. When it comes to obesity and cancer, it all starts with your diet. In fact, more than half of the immune system is located in the gut. A healthy gut promotes nutrient absorption, prevents weight gain and obesity, and protects against autoimmune disease and cancer.
The link between obesity and cancer is undeniable. In today’s world, the standard American diet consists of sugars, carbs, processed meats, and dangerous synthetic fats. Our food is being pumped with hormones, soaked in poison, or both. But your body is a temple, and you can protect yourself from diseases like cancer. With the right nutrition and an active lifestyle, you can live a long, happy, and healthy life.