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Alpha-linolenic acid, the broad-spectrum breast cancer cell slayer

We have already written a lot about the positive health effect of the vegetable omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, present in walnuts, vegetables, linseed and chia. So why not add another piece? That's what we thought when we accidentally came across two older studies, both of which suggested that alpha-linolenic acid can also protect against breast cancer.

Alpha-linolenic acid & cancer
Nutrition scientists are still not sure whether a diet with a lot of alpha-linolenic acid offers protection against cancer. Animal studies have indicated that this protection could exist, but large epidemiological studies are less clear. If we limit ourselves to breast cancer, for every study that finds a protective effect there is another study that can not find any significant correlation at all.

But despite this, some research results are pretty good. Take the French study, that oncologists at the university of Tours, published in 1994 in the British Journal of Cancer. [Br J Cancer. 1994 August; 70(2): 330-4.] In that study, the researchers determined the amount of alpha-linolenic acid in the breast tissue in 121 women with non-metastasized breast cancer.

The researchers then divided the women into two equally large groups: one with relatively little alpha-linolenic acid in their breast tissue, and one with a relatively large amount of alpha-linolenic acid.

When the researchers followed the women for two-and-a-half years, they saw that in the women with a lot of alpha-linolenic acid in their tissues, the tumor metastasized in about 10 percent of the women. In the other group this was the case with a significantly higher percentage.

Alpha-linolenic acid, the broad-spectrum breast cancer cell slayer

Because much more studies with such promising results have been published, research into the cancer-inhibiting effect of alpha-linolenic acid continues.

In 2013, the Canadian nutrition scientist Ashleigh Wiggins finished her thesis on the cancer-inhibiting effect of alpha-linolenic acid on breast cancer cells. Wiggins did in vitro research, in which she exposed four different types of breast cancer cells to the fatty acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid, the broad-spectrum breast cancer cell slayer

The concentrations that Wiggings used were pretty high. The fatty acids of the membranes of her cancer cells consisted for a few dozen percent out of alpha-linolenic acid. You will not reach such levels in in vivo models.

Alpha linolenic acid reduced the number of breast cancer cells, irrespective of the presence of estradiol. All cancer cell types were susceptible to the cancer-killing effect of the fatty acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid, the broad-spectrum breast cancer cell slayer

Alpha-linolenic acid caused the cell types to kill themselves, Wiggins discovered. The more alpha-linolenic acid was present in the cell membranes of the cancer cells, the greater the percentage of the cells that died [apoptosis].

Alpha-linolenic acid, the broad-spectrum breast cancer cell slayer

How alpha-linolenic acid kills breast cancer cells, Wiggins could not figure out. But she did find out that alpha-linolenic acid didn't sabotage the hormone receptors of the cells.


"This research provides support for the use of alpha-linolenic acid and alpha-linolenic acid-rich foods as a complementary treatment for breast cancer patients, regardless of tumour receptor expression and menopausal status", Wiggins concluded. "This is of importance to patients who may be pursuing complementary therapies such as flaxseed, flaxseed oil and alpha-linolenic acid, their physicians and oncologists, as well as the breast cancer research community."

"This research also shows that alpha-linolenic acid is particularly effective at reducing growth of basal/triple negative breast cancer, which currently has poor prognosis and few treatment options."

"Alpha-linolenic acid may provide a safe, cost effective treatment option for patients not only with basal breast cancer, but with a wide range of breast tumor receptor expression profiles."

"This work provides insight into some potential mechanisms of alpha-linolenic acid effect, showing that alpha-linolenic acid effectively incorporates into cell phospholipids and induces apoptosis, however further investigation is needed to determine exact mechanisms and determine why alpha-linolenic acid is more effective at reducing growth in basal breast cancer cell lines."

Wiggins A. Effect of Alpha-Linolenic Acid on Growth of Breast Cancer Cells with Varying Receptor Expression and Estrogen Environments. Thesis. University of Toronto, 2013.

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Cancer Prevention & Survival
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Breast Cancer

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