Is Itching a Risk Factor for Cancer?

Monday, August 24, 2009
By: Byron J. Richards,
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

There are many reasons for itching.  Something is irritating your skin.  It could be something you came in contact with or some waste product or toxin trying to work its way out of your body.  There could be an infection in the skin.  Many people itch when they get too stressed out or worn down.  In response to such skin stressors your mast cells may release histamine (an irritant chemical), that magnifies the itching response.  Maybe your immune system has gotten riled up, and IgE antibodies are locking in some sort of inflammatory skin problem that itches.  Researchers have now identified an itch-specific gene signal in your spinal cord, and without it you don’t feel itching regardless of the irritant.  Interestingly, too much of this gene signal is involved with cancer.

Scientists have long tried to figure out the involvement of nerves in various sensations such as itching and pain.  Up to this point no nerve pathway has ever been identified that is itch specific.  In the new research scientists were able to demonstrate that specific neurons that display the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) are responsible for itching.  When these neurons were destroyed in mice then they felt no itching but did feel pain. 

“This finding has very important therapeutic implications,” Washington University’s Zhou-Feng Chen, who led the study, said in a statement.  “We’ve shown that particular neurons are critical for the itching sensation but not for pain, which means those cells may contain several itch-specific receptors or signaling molecules that can be explored or identified as targets for future treatment or management of chronic itching.”

This discovery may some day lead to new treatments for chronic itching that is often involved with eczema, psoriasis, allergies, infections and other problems.  This research is interesting, but not why I am writing about it. 

It is a well-documented fact that gastrin-releasing peptide and its receptor are excessively activated in numerous types of cancer, including cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, breast, lung, pancreas, and prostate.  Studies show that it increases tumor cell proliferation.  Considerable scientific evidence shows that it is a major tool cancer cells use to regulate their growth.

Gastrin-releasing peptide and its receptor are a normal regulatory gene signal not only involved with the health of nerves but also with the health of your pancreas, adrenals, muscle contractions, and regeneration of cells that line your GI tract. 

The problem with just about every cancer is that various gene signals have become overheated for one reason or another.  In essence, normal survival systems in your body get hijacked and used by the cancer to foster its own survival. 

A key goal of prevention is to keep your gene signals happy and relaxed, so they don’t get overheated and cause trouble.  The new allergy research study connects the dots to another field of research on cancer.  It predicts that chronic itching could overheat the activity of gastrin-releasing peptide receptor, setting the table for cancer that is more difficult to stop if it should get started.

There are no studies at this time that link skin itching to cancer risk, although itching has been identified as one of a number of symptoms present in people who later develop pancreatic cancer (the pancreas is a main site of gastrin-releasing peptide production).  There have been a few case reports, including case reports of doctors asking if anyone else has observed a link between itching and cancer.  These reports include itching associated with lung cancer, cervical cancer, and breast cancer.

I am not trying to panic people into thinking that any itching is reflective of cancer – as the data does not support that association.  However, the data does support that chronic itching from whatever cause could program the gastrin-releasing peptide receptor to be reset in an overactive manner.  If this problem were to co-exist with other wear and tear related factors, including being overweight, and this collection of problems reset other gene signals to be favorable for cancer – then the combination could be a real problem for some people.

One goal of prevention is to get itching problems under control.  Nutrients like quercetin help settle down mast cells.  Numerous nutrients help restore skin integrity, including squalene.  Oftentimes your skin is being punched in the nose by internal toxins trying to get out, stress, infection, or contact irritants.  Fixing any digestive issue is of paramount importance, as pancreatic stress could be a real weak link.  Zinc is vital for pancreatic health, as are essential fatty acids.  Violating the Five Rules of the Leptin Diet really stresses out your pancreas and digestive systems, and following them helps reduce such stress.

The moral of the story is don’t let itching problems persist.  Get to the bottom of them and fix them.

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