When thinking about ovarian cancer prevention, there are a number of factors to consider, especially when it comes to lifestyle changes. In recent decades, however, much of the focus has been on how specific foods or food groups may contribute to the onset of ovarian cancer or help prevent it.
Dairy has gotten particular attention due the hormones in it that may be cancer-causing. But after decades of research, the question remains: Does dairy cause ovarian cancer?
What is ovarian cancer? What causes it?
Ovarian cancer is when malignant cells appear in, on, or around the ovaries in the reproductive system. Ovaries are an important part of a woman’s reproductive health, as they store her eggs. Plus, their proximity to the rest of the reproductive system means that malignant tumors run the risk of metastasizing elsewhere in that area of the body. It’s also the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women ages 35 to 74; in fact, one in 78 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer at some point in her life.
Several risk factors increase the likelihood of a woman having ovarian cancer, including older age, family history, length of menstruation lifespan, genetic mutations, and estrogen replacement therapy during menopause.
Does dairy cause ovarian cancer?
The question if consuming dairy products could cause cancer or increase cancer risk came about after research in the early 2000s showed a link between dairy products and ovarian cancer risk. The theory was that the lactose found in dairy products increased the production of a hormone called gonadotropin, which often aids in fertility in reproductive organs. When there’s too much gonadotropin in your system, however, it negatively impacts the anti-proliferative effects of vitamin D and calcium often found in dairy products. “Anti-proliferative” compounds suppress cell growth, specifically malignant or damaged cells, so when you don’t have enough of those compounds, it can create an environment where cancerous cells can thrive.
In other words, the belief was too much of a certain hormone found in dairy could hinder your body’s ability to fight “bad” cells that could turn into cancer.
However, more recent academic work, including an oft-cited study from 2013, found that lactose consumption didn’t necessarily make a person more likely to have ovarian cancer in their lifetime, though it’s often recommended that people include fewer dairy products in their diets to avoid extra cancer risks in general. All told, the research remains inconclusive, so if you want to cut out dairy from your diet to try and prevent ovarian cancer or just for other health reasons, you can definitely try it. If you want to keep it in for the time being, consider having it more in moderation.
Does dairy cause ovarian cysts?
Another big concern, in addition to ovarian cancer, is if dairy can cause ovarian cysts or make existing ovarian cysts worse. Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that appear on the ovaries and are often generally harmless, though they can cause varying amounts of abdominal and pelvic pain.
Ovarian cysts are largely caused by one or a combination of factors, including hormonal imbalances, pregnancy, pelvic infections, and endometriosis. While a dairy product like milk or eggs may not directly or solely cause ovarian cysts, research has shown a potential link between the hormones in dairy and the appearance of ovarian cysts. However, not enough academic work has been conducted to make a definitive connection specifically between ovarian cysts and dairy.
Can a vegan diet prevent ovarian cancer?
Plant-based diets have generally gotten the reputation for having a number of overall health benefits compared to diets with meat regardless of your condition. Research has shown a connection between ovarian cancer prevention, as well as survival rates of those who’ve had it, and diets full of fruits and vegetables, in addition to whole grains and fewer processed foods. That said, there’s not conclusive evidence that vegans are less likely to have ovarian cancers than non-vegans. Plus, diet isn’t everything; exercise is another key component to staying healthy and strong over time.
What foods prevent ovarian cancer naturally?
While genetics and environment play roles in a cancer diagnosis, there are foods that are believed to decrease the likelihood of having ovarian cancer. Some of these include ginger, green tea, tomato juice, peppers, and nuts. Many of them contain ingredients like quercetin (which breaks down carcinogens), lignans (which keep estrogen levels stable), and alpha-linolenic acid (which slashes inflammation).
Overall, ovarian cancer’s link to dairy is heavily disputed, so for the time being, focus on eating a mostly plant-based diet that isn’t heavy in dairy or meat, and be sure to bring up your ovarian cancer risk at your annual check-up. There are different screenings and tests you can undergo if you have specific concerns.