Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women.
Like any cancer, it can trigger feelings of fear and helplessness—a feeling that one has no control over one’s health and destiny, and that the only choice is to roll the dice of conventional oncology and hope for the best. But a growing body of research is demonstrating that cancer patients can hugely impact the trajectory of the disease with simple lifestyle choices (and the same goes for cancer prevention).
We’ve written a lot in the past about the epigenetics of cancer prevention and treatment. Epigenetics explores how well-chosen foods and lifestyle practices can actually rewire the expression of your genes in a way that helps prevent the onset and spread of cancer.
For example, the following lifestyle factors can dramatically raise your risk of developing breast cancer: being overweight, not exercising often enough, eating too many saturated fats, taking oral contraceptives, not getting enough sleep, and using endocrine-disrupting cosmetics and products.
On the flip side, including foods like cruciferous vegetables and medicinal mushrooms in your diet can dramatically lower your breast cancer risk. Turmeric is another anti-cancer powerhouse, and research has shown that it’s particularly good at preventing and treating breast cancer.
A new breast cancer breakthrough
Here’s the latest breakthrough in our understanding of breast cancer epigenetics: researchers have found that a certain non-essential amino acid called asparagine is linked to the spread of breast cancer. 
In other words, women with higher levels of asparagine in their bodies may tend to exhibit more aggressive, faster-spreading types of breast cancer.
In the study cited above, which was published in the journal Nature, researchers focused on rats with triple-negative breast cancer. Tumors of this type lack the main three receptors that are targeted by conventional breast cancer treatments (i.e. estrogen, progesterone, and HER2-neu), and thus are considered the most aggressive and difficult to treat.
Triple-negative breast cancer is also the type most likely to metastasize, so researchers hoped to learn exactly what attributes accompany this likelihood to spread to other parts of the body. As mentioned above, the presence of asparagine indicated a higher chance of metastasis. By reducing asparagine levels through diet and drugs, researchers were able to prevent cancer cells from moving throughout the body.
While these findings need to be replicated in humans, they provide hope for breast cancer patients with limited treatment options. And perhaps even more importantly, they demonstrate that dietary changes can dramatically impact breast cancer treatment.
How to lower asparagine levels
First and foremost, it’s important to note that the findings above do not mean asparagine is “bad for you.” Instead, this study simply reminds us that optimal health is all about balance and homeostasis.
Asparagine isn’t inherently bad; it causes issues only when there’s too much of it, or when it is present in the wrong context (much like omega-6 fatty acids, which are a necessary counterpoint to omega-3 fatty acids, but which cause inflammation and myriad health issues if consumed in excess).
Case in point: asparagine is in lots of foods, many of which are healthy in their own right. All of these foods are high in asparagine…
- Asparagus (you probably guessed that one from the amino acid’s name)
- Whole grains
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. With the exception of asparagus, vegetables and fruits are conspicuously absent from that list—which means that those who consume a diet focused around fruits and veggies are likely to exhibit lower levels of asparagine.
This conclusion suggests that adopting a plant-based diet—especially one that places primary emphasis on fruits and vegetables—can be beneficial for preventing and treating cancer.
Conversely, a diet that emphasizes animal products, fats, and grains may contribute to increased risk of aggressive cancer types like triple-negative breast cancer.
This suggestion is supported by a separate, complementary study in 2017, which also demonstrated that a plant-based diet can help shift breast cancer to a more treatable form.
In this study, researchers examined how combinations of healing foods can influence cancer risk and development. They focused on compounds previously shown to exhibit positive epigenetic effects, such as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea polyphenols, and sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts.
They found that these compounds dramatically reduced the risk of breast cancer (and inhibited tumor growth in those already diagnosed with the disease), especially when used in combination (as is the case with a consistent, balanced, plant-based diet).
While the asparagine study demonstrates the pro-cancer compounds that a plant-based diet helps you avoid, this other study examined some of the anti-cancer compounds that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables provides.
The bottom line is that, whether you’re currently battling breast cancer or simply want to do everything you can to prevent it, eating a nutrient-dense diet focused around fruits and vegetables is always a wise choice. This dietary approach to lowering asparagine levels may even play a role in future breast cancer treatment protocols.