Cancer, sugar and a ketogenic diet

Early pioneer showed that keeping blood sugar low can reduce tumors

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We have known since Otto Warburg's discoveries that sugar is cancer's "favourite food", i.e. that tumor cells have an increased consumption of glucose. Since their mitochondria are damaged and only mitochondria can turn fats into energy, most cancer cells near-exclusively rely on glycolysis (the conversion of monosaccharides such as glucose) to meet their energy needs, i.e. depend on sugar as their energy source.[1]

As part of research efforts looking into complementary cancer treatments, recent years and decades have seen various investigators experimenting with diets aimed at lowering the patient's blood glucose levels (so-called. ketogenic diets). The hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) induced in this manner aims to alter tumor cell metabolism and impede tumor growth.[2]

When we start digging a bit deeper we find that these ideas have actually been explored as early as 100 years ago. Regarding the specific role of sugar and its withdrawal in both the development and the "maintenance" of cancerous tumors, one of the earliest pioneers researching the question was German natural scientist and professor of otorhinolaryngology Wilhelm Brünings (1876–1958).

In 1941 Brünings reported on "a dietetic-hormonal method of manipulating cancer"[3], thus publishing the first clinical study which included a very low carbohydrate diet (i.e. a "ketogenic diet") to alter tumor cell metabolism in cancer patients.

Brünings started from the observation of a diabetic patient who also suffered from an advanced tumor in his upper jaw. Before the patient could have surgery, his diabetes had to be clinically treated with diet and insulin therapy for several weeks. To the surgeon's greatest surprise, the subsequent operation revealed that the tumor had mostly disappeared, merely leaving some shrivelled tissue behind.

Professor Brünings went on to develop what he called a "glucose deprivation" approach which he started using on all his head and neck cancer patients with visible tumors. This allowed him to closely follow how tumors were impacted by the combination of a virtually carbohydrate-free diet plus insulin administration aimed at maximally lowering the patient's blood glucose levels.

In Brünings' second report from 1942 he was able to show, based on 30 case histories, that keeping blood sugar down with a carbohydrate-free diet combined with insulin injections exerted very impressive general effects (improved quality of life) and should be considered a preoperative treatment as well as a helpful adjunct to radiotherapy.[4]

While the addition of insulin makes Brünings' approach potentially risky (there is the danger of inducing a hypoglycemic shock), reducing carbohydrates, i.e. following a strict diabetic diet in the case of cancer is something everyone can do at home.

More details about this early clinical study into the effect of hypoglycemia on tumors

While I first learned about Brünings' pioneering cancer research from a book published in 1965[5], when preparing this article I was delighted to come across a peer-reviewed paper by Rainer Johannes Klement[6] published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine in 2019 and titled "Wilhelm Brünings' Forgotten Contribution to the Metabolic Treatment of Cancer Utilizing Hypoglycemia and a Very Low Carbohydrate (Ketogenic) Diet".[7]

The reader interested in learning all the details about Brünings' research and encouraging (although mostly short-term) results will find them discussed in the above paper. As the author notes, "hypoglycemic treatments, including the use of insulin injections and ketogenic diets, are currently being re-investigated as complementary and integrative cancer treatments".


1 Compare The Prime Cause and Prevention of Cancer (Otto Warburg's discoveries).

2 See On the anti-cancer effects of a low-calorie and/or ketogenic diet: New research into cancer as a metabolic disease.

3 Brünings W. Beiträge zum Krebsproblem [Contributions to the Cancer Problem]. 1. Mitteilung: Über eine diätetisch-hormonale Beeinflussung des Krebses. Münchener Medizinische Wochenschrift 1941;88:117–23. Brünings among other contributions was the inventor of world-famous endoscopic instruments.

4 This was at a time when chemotherapy had not been invented yet.

5 "Krebsschutz durch Früherkennung und Ursachenbehandlung" by Dr. med Dr. phil. Emil Fritz Scheller (Humata Verlag Blume 1965)

6 Leopoldina Hospital, Department of Radiotherapy and Radiation Oncology, Schweinfurt, Germany. Klement has also (co-)authored a number of peer-reviewed articles on carbohydrate restriction, ketogenic diet, insulin and similar subjects in complementary cancer treatment.

7 (abstract) (free full text)

Is there a cure for cancer? After 20 years of research

discover what this German expert thinks.

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