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Brain Tumor

A Diet for Brain Cancer

There are two specific diets that should be considered for treating brain tumors, either separately or in combination.

The Ketogenic Diet: The Ketogenic Diet is a very high fat, high protein, and extremely low carbohydrate diet typically used to treat epilepsy (Porta N et al 2009).

Without carbohydrates, the body shifts from using glucose to ketones for energy. Healthy brain cells can utilize either glucose or ketones. Brain tumor cells can only burn glucose. The theory is that switching to ketones for energy starves brain tumor cells.

A 2007 study tested this theory on mice implanted with malignant brain tumors. The treatment group was fed a drink high in fat and protein that was designed to cause ketosis in children with epilepsy, and the control group was fed a low fat high carbohydrate diet. The ketone-producing diet decreased growth of the brain tumors from 35 to 65%, depending on the tumor line, and significantly enhanced health and survival compared to the control group, which was on the low fat, high carbohydrate diet (Zhou W et al 2007).

In 1995, doctors from Case Western Reserve reported treating two young girls suffering from astrocytomas with low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets. One of the girls had a favorable clinical response without reported disease progression for 12 months at the time of publication (Nebeling LC et al 1995).

In April 2010, a case report was published describing an older female patient treated for glioblastoma multiforme with an initial 2-day water fast followed by a ketogenic diet and then simply a caloric-restricted diet. The tumor regressed during treatment, getting smaller on subsequent scans from January until July, at which point the patient stopped following the diet. The tumor returned ten weeks later (Zuccoli G et al 2010).

At this point the evidence supporting the management of brain cancer through a ketogenic diet is intriguing, and the risks are minimal (Seyfried TN et al 2010).

Caloric Restriction: Caloric restriction also appears to slow brain tumor growth. A 2002 study reported experiments on mice with brain tumors. Compared to mice that were not restricted in their food intake, the brain tumors in mice on a calorie-restricted diet grew slower, were less dense, and displayed less angiogenesis (building new blood vessels to feed the tumor). The tumor cells in the caloric-restricted mice were more likely to undergo apoptosis (Mukherjee P et al 2002).

A July 2010, paper confirmed the benefit in mice with glioblastoma multiforme. Caloric restriction was effective in reducing malignant brain tumor growth and invasion (Shelton LM et al 2010).

Caloric restriction, although it may put the body into ketosis, is thought to act differently than the ketogenic diet. Hunger puts a mild stress on the body. Mild stress is, in turn, hypothesized to create a hormetic reaction awakening protective mechanisms within the body, stimulating the individual cells to fight the cancer (Kouda K et al 2010).

Researchers at Boston College are now investigating the simultaneous implementation of both of these dietary strategies by using a caloric-restricted ketogenic diet against brain cancer (Seyfried TN et al 2008).


Given the inadequacy of standard medical treatment in controlling high-grade malignant brain tumors, this approach of co-treating brain tumors with brain tumor-specific diet and nutritional supplementation, in addition to the medical oncology standard of care, is an option that offers hope to those afflicted with brain tumors.

Because of the synergistic effects between various anti-cancer nutrients and phytochemicals, Life Extension recommends use of a wide variety of these substances rather than attempting to rely on large doses of single nutrients to fight cancer.

Antidepressants and brain tumors

People with brain tumors should be selective about antidepressants.

There is a chemical made in the brain called glial cell-line derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF). It typically aids the survival of neurons after injury. The problem is that it also helps brain tumor cells survive, and, in particular, gliomas. It also helps tumor cells migrate and invade surrounding brain tissue (Lu DY et al 2010, Song H et al 2006, Wan G et al 2010).

Many antidepressants increase GDNF and thus may help tumor cells survive treatment. A 2007 paper reported that amitriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant, did so (Hisaoka K et al 2007). Serotonin itself increases GDNF (Tsuchioka M et al 2008). Antidepressants classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which increase serotonin levels in the brain, may therefore increase GDNF, increasing tumor survival and helping it spread further into the brain.

While SSRIs might pose a problem, certain tricyclic antidepressants may be useful in treating brain tumors. A 2010 paper reported the effects of several tricyclic antidepressants on the cellular respiration rates of malignant glioma cells. Lowered cellular respiration rates are an indirect measure of increased apoptosis. Clomipramine (Anafranil®) was the most potent inhibitor of cellular respiration in glioma cells. Of even more interest, combining clomipramine with the steroid drug dexamethasone had a synergistic effect, increasing cell death rates even further (Higgins SC et al 2010). This research is still in its early stages. In the future, though, doctors may prescribe specific antidepressants during brain cancer treatments with the intention of increasing tumor cell death.


Steroids are a potential problem in patients with brain cancer. Almost all patients who undergo surgery or radiation treatment will be prescribed some form of steroid medication, like prednisone, as part of their treatment. These drugs are needed to reduce brain swelling. The problem is that these drugs may inhibit apoptosis in glioma cells, preventing cancer cell death. A 2000 paper concluded,,: “Since glucocorticoids are often used in the treatment of gliomas to relieve cerebral edema, the inhibition of apoptosis by these compounds could potentially interfere with the efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs” (Gorman AM et al 2000). Steroids also block the chemotherapy drug camptothecin from killing glioma cells (Qian YH et al 2009).

Patients should be cautious in using these drugs. Concomitant use of curcumin and boswellia may act to reduce inflammation, reducing the necessity for steroids.

Online Resources

The Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Lists of naturopathic physicians who specialize in naturopathic oncology as well as naturopathic physicians who have been board certified in naturopathic oncology are found on this website.

Essential Guide to Brain Tumors (National Brain Tumor Society)

American Brain Tumor Association

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This information (and any accompanying material) is not intended to replace the attention or advice of a physician or other qualified health care professional. Anyone who wishes to embark on any dietary, drug, exercise, or other lifestyle change intended to prevent or treat a specific disease or condition should first consult with and seek clearance from a physician or other qualified health care professional. Pregnant women in particular should seek the advice of a physician before using any protocol listed on this website. The protocols described on this website are for adults only, unless otherwise specified. Product labels may contain important safety information and the most recent product information provided by the product manufacturers should be carefully reviewed prior to use to verify the dose, administration, and contraindications. National, state, and local laws may vary regarding the use and application of many of the treatments discussed. The reader assumes the risk of any injuries. The authors and publishers, their affiliates and assigns are not liable for any injury and/or damage to persons arising from this protocol and expressly disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

The protocols raise many issues that are subject to change as new data emerge. None of our suggested protocol regimens can guarantee health benefits. The publisher has not performed independent verification of the data contained herein, and expressly disclaim responsibility for any error in literature.