Well Ahead Blog

Back to Well Ahead Blog

Understanding the rise in colorectal cancer in young adults

Main Line Health April 24, 2017 Cancer By Philip Pearson, MD

Q: I’ve seen a couple of news articles about a trend in colorectal cancer in younger people. Why is that—and is it something I should be concerned about?

It is true we are seeing greater incidence of colon cancer in people under 50, and particularly in the 20- to 34-year-old range. While the numbers are still relatively small, the number of younger people with this form of cancer is expected to grow in the coming years.

Why are we seeing this trend? Most in the medical community agree it has to do with diet and a lack of exercise. With the proliferation of processed food and our eat-on-the-go lifestyles, some people are going to be more susceptible to inflammation and disease due to “bad” bacteria in the gut.

To understand how the gut impacts overall health, it’s helpful to understand what we call the gut microbiome. Within our intestinal tract are trillions of microorganisms, including 1000 species of bacteria as well as viruses and fungi that help us digest our food, produce vital nutrients, and control the proliferation of bad bacteria. Not surprisingly, the good bacteria—called probiotics—feed off of “good” things in our diet, such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, and plant-based foods like whole grains. Other probiotic sources include yogurt and other fermented foods like miso and tempeh, even pickles and olives. Probiotics produce nutrients, help our bodies fight disease, and keep our gut “flora” (balance of bacteria) in check. The growth of our good bacteria is stimulated by plant-fiber compounds called “prebiotics.” Pre- and probiotics work together for a healthy gut environment.

Bad bacteria, on the other hand, feeds off of less healthy, high-fat, low-fiber foods, particularly processed meats and cheeses, and fried foods. We call these bacteria “bad” because they trigger cravings (for sweet things, for example), release toxins in the body, and produce inflammation, which has been identified as a common source of many diseases and health conditions.

Dietary fat found in processed foods also increases the release of bile acid. While these juices are useful for breaking down fat during digestion and removing certain toxins, they also have a tendency to become secondary bile acids, which can lead to production of tumors in the lining of the colon.

To bring this to a more practical level, we are always “feeding” our gut bacteria, whether it’s with something good or something bad. So it makes sense to stop and ask ourselves, do we want to feed the bad bacteria, or nourish the good one? If I eat fatty meat, I’m basically helping the bad bacteria in my gut grow. If I eat a lot of plant-fiber food—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes—I’m helping grow the good.

We are discovering more all the time about the importance of good intestinal health and the role it plays in preventing disease and staying well.