Who here doesn’t love a good avocado? They’re nutritious and perfect for instagram but I hate to break this to you, they can’t cure cancer.
There are many great things on Instagram. Puppies, Memes. Bloggers posting great shots and stories. I often see a lot of avocado toast. I also see a lot of health related nonsense.
#healthblogger is a pretty popular hashtag on Instagram, with over 260,000 posts. I like to keep up with my fellow health bloggers, so I check posts with this hashtag. One day, I saw one that hailed the supposed cancer fighting properties of avocados. I was so dumbfounded by it, I took a quick screenshot:
Is there any truth in this?
Well, let’s dissect the post and go through it, bit by bit.
Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
First of all, they’re right in saying that AML is the most common acute leukaemia in adults, although, it is actually still a rare form of cancer. Survival rates are incredibly low (10% of living 2 years after diagnosis). What’s more, it’s aggressive and requires chemotherapy, and patients may even need radiotherapy and a bone marrow transplant to be completely cured.1
Now, let’s make this clear, chemotherapy can be carcinogenic. Is this really a major revelation?
Chemotherapy is a nasty treatment, pure and simple. My immunology professor at university would literally tell his patients that he was going to take them to the brink of death and them pull them back in order to treat them.
Some chemotherapy treatments, like alkylating agents, can interfere with DNA.2 This is risky, because cancer is the result of damaged DNA. Internal safety mechanisms that are supposed to stop faulty cells from multiplying fail, and tumours grow.3
I’d like to make it clear that this risk is only associated with SOME chemotherapy treatments, not all.
This Instagram post makes it sound like we’ve uncovered a huge, Big Pharma conspiracy. This isn’t true. The risks are known but, for now, chemotherapy is still one of the best treatments that we have.
Cancer curing properties
First things first, these results have only been seen in vitro, which is in lab-based cell cultures. That being said, this is still promising.
I say this because a lot of pharmaceutical drugs start out as plants. Digoxin, a heart medication, is derived from foxgloves.4 Morphine comes from poppies. So it’s not unheard of plants being used in modern medicine.
Now, let’s talk about avocados and this study. 800 different compounds were tested on lab-grown AML cells. The compound that they isolated from avocados was called avocatin B. Of these 800 compounds, avocatin B was the most effective at causing apoptosis, which is a safe, programmed form of cell death. It also lead healthy, non-cancerous cells unharmed.5
The researchers suggest reason that avocatin B is able to target AML cells so well is because of the cells mitochondria.5 Now, as we all know, the mitochondria is the power house of the cell. It’s where we create our energy, and AML cells have an altered mitochondrial density as well as a greater energy producing capacity. It seems that avocatin B is able to disrupt these altered mitochondria, which leads to the death of AML cells.
So…an avocado a day keeps the cancer at bay. Right?
This is a story that has been reported in the news, as well as on Instagram. Sadly, it’s been misreported. A lot.
Most of these stories make it sound like a daily serving of avocado is going to prevent cancer. This really isn’t the case. One day, science may prove this statement wrong. But for now, there just isn’t any credible evidence.
This is because of one very simple fact. Avocatin B doesn’t come from the edible flesh. It’s only found in the seed. It’s also a compound that has been refined and purified, so I doubt that chomping on the seed is going to help you in any way.
Why this story is such a problem?
Cancer sucks. It can wreck your body and it can kill you. So it’s only natural that we want to root for a cure, from anywhere. We cling onto that hope. We sign up for experimental treatments that sometimes have horrendous side effects. We try natural, raw juice diets. We even have parents kidnapping their children from hospitals in order to try and save them.
This means that when we see a headline that screams ‘X CURES CANCER’ – we’re willing to accept it at face value. We want it to be true. Just look at the case of Belle Gibson. She claimed to have halted cancer in her brain, liver, blood, uterus and spleen with a natural diet. She sold a successful cookbook, The Whole Pantry, and her app was going to be featured on the then new Apple Watch.6
People believed her for two reasons. Firstly, nobody would ever doubt that someone would claim to be so ill. Secondly, as I’ve read in The Woman Who Fooled The World, people wanted to believe her because they wanted to believe in hope. They wanted to believe that this seemingly natural, miraculous way of living was going to help them.
I feel that this kind medical misinformation, like what I saw on Instagram that day, is spreading false hope.
What does this mean?
For now, and for me at least, it doesn’t mean much. Avocatin B still needs to go through animal and human trials, and a lot of drugs that show promise in vitro never make it past those stages. The human body is miraculous and complicated.
This doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing the healthy properties of the humble avocado though. It’s still a food that’s packed with healthy fats, fibre and vitamins.7 So it’s the perfect addition for a healthy diet. And, of course, perfect for posting on Instagram.
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- NHS Choices. Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.
- American Cancer Society. How does chemotherpay affect the risk of second cancers?
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. TP53 Gene.
- Wikipedia. Digoxin.
- Lee EA et al. Cancer Research 2015; 75(12).
- The Guardian. ‘None of it’s true’: wellness blogger Belle Gibson admits she never had cancer.
- Medical News Today. Everything you need to know about avocado.