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Chris Woolmams / Catherine Woollams
EMFs, melatonin and Breast Cancer

EMFs, melatonin depletion and Breast cancer risk

There can be little doubt that melatonin depletion is linked to an increased risk in breast cancer. And prostate cancer, lung cancer and others. And a lack of sleep as a cause has been confirmed by IARC. Bizarrely, EMFs have been confirmed by IARC to deplete melatonin too. But no Government body wants to draw a causal line to breast cancer, prostate cancer  and the rest!

It really doesn´t make any sense.

The Evidence on a link between EMFs and cancer is clear

In Spring 2006 the Independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation, chaired by Professor A. Swerdlow for The UK Health Protection Agency, published its report (a book in fact) entitled ´Power Frequency electromagnetic Fields, Melatonin and the Risk of Breast Cancer´. (Chris Woollams)

In it they concluded that the idea that melatonin depletion might affect breast cancer risk was intriguing, but not conclusive. This article does not seek to criticise the team. Merely to make two points:

     Firstly, that in my view the stack of evidence presented looked pretty conclusive to me. Experts have further suggested that a number of important papers were missed out.

     Secondly, life has moved on. IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the foremost body on the disease is considering (as of January 2008) officially labelling night shift work as a probable human carcinogen.

This follows studies that show nurses, night shift workers, long haul airline hostesses, and even women who stay up late 3 or more times a week, are more likely to develop breast cancer. Cancer has been shown to be 60 per cent more common amongst these groups. Conversely, totally blind women are only half as likely to contract cancer.

Go to: Melatonin - self defence against cancer

icon has previously covered research from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health in the United States where human breast tumour cells were grafted onto rats. In the early hours of the morning the rats were then given blood from either women taken during normal full sleep in a totally darkened room, or from women sleeping in artificial light. The blood taken from women in darkness slowed the tumours by 80 per cent. The blood from the women sleeping in artificial light accelerated the tumour growth.

However, IARC have a problem. To decide that poor sleeping habits and night shift work is a carcinogen, via the melatonin pathway would cause huge problems. Melatonin depletion is linked with heightened, less controlled levels of IGF-1 (a hormone that makes cells grow rapidly) and oestrogen (a hormone known to fuel the fire of cancer) in the body.

And this exact same pathway, is the one that Swerdlow and his team say there is no evidence for. If lack of sleep, which causes melatonin depletion is declared a carcinogen, what then of EMFs, also known to reduce melatonin levels?

Readers may find it interesting to read the following articles:

1. Melatonin - self defence against cancer; some quick facts

Melatonin -   a full appraisal by expert Roger Coghill

Living Proof  -  how Eileen O´Connor won her battle to remove a mast from her village after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Eileen is now a leading light in the campaign against the creeping threat of Electrosmog.

We believe that a Precautionary stance must be adopted on EMFs.

And that supplementation with melatonin should be considered in all cases where there is sleep or EMF induced depletion, ageing, or where a patient has cancer, especially an oestrogen-driven cancer.

The EMF and melatonin Report

In Spring 2006 the Independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation, chaired by Professor A. Swerdlow for The Health Protection Agency, published its report (a book in fact) entitled Power Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, Melatonin and the Risk of Breast Cancer.

The summary 6 paragraphs and less than one page long to my mind, is the most important part since, in my experience, Government ministers and other important people with little time or background knowledge will probably read this, flick through the rest of the document, and then file it! I know that sounds cynical but would you take a bet with me that its not true?


Anyway, I quote the last paragraph:
"Overall, the evidence that melatonin, and the timing and extent of light exposure may affect breast cancer risk is intriguing but not conclusive. In aggregate, the evidence to date does not support the hypothesis that exposure to power frequency EMFs affects melatonin levels or the risk of breast cancer."

So that´s that.

So much research evidence on breast cancer and melatonin

Now, the reason I looked at this report and read it in some detail is that I was asked to sit on an independent group looking into EMFs and chaired by Sir William Stewart earlier in 2006 (Oh, that I had time!) and, more importantly, in the September 2006 issue of icon (Cancer Watch) we covered a research report that concluded the type of light present during sleep significantly affected melatonin levels and, of various blood samples given to rats with breast cancer, the ones given normal sleep-induced levels of melatonin did see a halt in breast cancer progression. This seemed at odds with the above report summary. Worse, we have also similarly covered the work of Black et al (2005), which showed that normal levels of melatonin produced during sleep could suppress human breast cancer growth (even though the research was performed with animals). This really is a pretty significant finding, especially if the suppression acts via oestrogen control, for that would have implications not just for male and female breast cancers, but for other oestrogen driven cancers from prostate to ovarian.
Our mission at icon is not to critique reports per se but rather to inform our readers on how they might better equip themselves to beat cancer. Whether they have it currently, or wish to prevent it. And so your intrepid reporter looked into the matter..


. what is the truth behind EMFs and their risks? And what might we all do to protect ourselves?

Oddly enough some of the answers can be found in the body of the report, which contains about 400 scientific references - and then still manages to miss a few we have covered - plus information supplied by icon magazine contributors like Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska InstituteEileen OConnor  founder of SCRAM, now at RRT, and expert Roger Coghill to name but three.
Let me start by clarifying one point and expressing it in laymans terms. Talking about EMFs even just non-ionising ones is rather like lumping Bicycles, Mopeds, Porsches, Ferraris, Delivery vans, Milk Floats and Lorries together and describing them as Vehicles. So if I pose a question like ´Can vehicles (in general) get round one circuit of Brands Hatch in less than 90 seconds?´, the truth is that What Car reports might show Porsches and Ferraris did but that Bicycles, Milk Floats and Removal Vans didn´t. However, I for one, would then not be moved to write in summary that ´Overall, the evidence that the idea that vehicles might circuit Brands Hatch in under 90 seconds is intriguing but not conclusive´. In aggregate, the evidence to date does not support the hypothesis that vehicles can do this.  Neither would I say that, ´Investigations have not given consistent evidence, nor would I find the results confusing´. The fact is that there is a world of difference between the different EMF forms, for example, magnetic fields, electrical fields, electrical and magnetic fields, geomagnetic fields etc., etc. One recent research report in icon stated that weather conditions were a huge factor. Apparently, EMFs can multiply 16-fold after rain!

You should also expect different results if the test was done over one lap or one month in this case the bicycle might win, if only because the others all ran out of fuel! Worryingly, little long-term research was conclusively analysed in this HPA report.
The report focuses on three areas.

  1. Do EMFs (sic) affect the production or action of melatonin?
  2. Does melatonin  affect the risk of breast cancer?
  3. Do EMFs affect the risk of breast cancer?

Now, it is a fact that the very great majority of studies have been done in vitro i.e. on cells in a laboratory or on animals, mostly rats. But research on animals is not seen by scientists to be confusing or inconclusive when it concerns drug trials. Rather it is seen to be Highly Significant and Worthy of further (human) investigation.

Go to: CANCERactive overview of Breast cancer, causes and alternative treatments

Moreover, the generalisation of EMFs in the summary and conclusions doesntt help matters at all. To stay with my vehicle analogy, I remember spending three days at the Mercedes HQ in Stuttgart. Years ago they pioneered air bags. They told me that their research showed that 11 per cent of fatal accidents arose from side collisions. Did they then conclude that the great majority of research pointed to conflicting evidence (namely that head on collisions might pose different conclusions)?  No. They just warned of the risks, took a responsible attitude to the sub-set and fitted air bags in side doors as well.
Maybe it is harder to separate out electrical frequency from magnetic frequency issues, or the effects of different frequencies, or the effects of natural radiation that we have been exposed to throughout our evolution from the effects of the very large mast down the road. And I do wonder what Governments could actually do about it anyway.
So, for readers benefit, what I conclude from the research I have seen (including the research presented, and even highlighted in the HPA document) is the following.

1 Melatonin is extremely important to your general well-being and in the prevention and treatment of cancer.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland just under the brain . The pineal gland has variously been described as the seat of the mind, even the fount of the soul. Over the last 30 years, research into this gland has increased dramatically and it is now known to be vital, for example, in arresting our ageing process pinealectomy increases the ageing process in animals (Holmes and Sugden 1976).
It is a chronobiotic it controls our natural timings and rhythms and is also a powerful antioxidant. It is now a known scavenger of free radicals (e.g. Reiter), may affect the overall antioxidant effect of the blood (e.g. Albarran 2001) and enhances the whole immune system research studies show stimulation of Natural Killer cells, cytokines, T-cells etc. Recent research suggests that it has very positive effects in chemotherapy e.g. with Tamoxifen, and with Interleukin (Lissoni), and in icon we have covered research that chemotherapy administration seems more effective at certain times of the day, depending upon natural melatonin levels.
I could provide research examples to support all of this if I were preparing a report. The HPA did not; thereby, I think, grossly undervaluing the role of melatonin in human biochemistry. Herein lies a major problem facing the greater medical profession in the UK. At icon we are in the middle of a series of reviews on the role of Vitamin D, Vitamin K, Probiotics, Yeast and Microbials in cancer, and Melatonin. And the speed of scientific research study seems to have completely passed by the general medical profession. They are still left prescribing drugs that they do not seem to understand may flatten, and even ruin - in some cases permanently - our essential immune systems. And while the majority of hospitals treat the idea of prescribing (yes, prescribing) supplementation of Vitamin D, Melatonin, Astragalus, or Vitamin K with derision, many are blissfully unaware that it is already taking place in some of the Western Worlds cancer hospitals with promising results! This is most definitely true in the case of melatonin, a further fact left out of the report.

2 Some EMFs do diminish the production of melatonin

Lots of factors affect the production of melatonin including, but not exclusively, sleep patterns, natural or artificial light during sleep, posture, exercise, certain drugs, nitric oxide, glutamate, testosterone, alcohol, caffeine, and other hormones.like oestrogen. Oestradiol, the most aggressive form of human oestrogen, depresses levels of melatonin in the body (Simmoneaux and Ribelayga, 2003).
Melatonin levels can be assessed in a number of ways, for example via blood or saliva, or by measuring third party chemicals like N-acetyltransferase, an enzyme involved in its production. Unfortunately you cannot just flip randomly between them all as the report does there can be a wide difference in my melatonin levels in my blood, saliva, organs or cells. Most research studies use animals. Research studies also have differed in the frequency of radiation used, the use of whole glands or separate cells, the use in vivo or in vitro, the time of day and other factors.
That having been said.. Some frequencies of some EMFs in some experiments clearly showed a diminution of melatonin levels. (e.g. Chacon, Rosen, Brendel, Lewy and others). Other experiments using different techniques and different frequencies did not (quite possibly the Porsche and Lorry effect).
Other studies have looked at the effects melatonin has on blocking the growth of breast cancer cells in vitro and how certain EMFs of certain frequencies can inhibit this. (e.g. Liburdy, Blackman, Ishido). So . Some frequencies of some EMFs in some experiments seem to stop the action of melatonin in limiting breast cancer. (The Mercedes effect).
The report (pg 103) concludes similarly, Some, but not all, studies with rats report that exposure to power frequency EMFs results in a suppression of pineal and serum melatonin levels although it goes on to conclude that various results have not been replicated and newer experiments may have suffered technical difficulties.
In experiments with humans, the original hypothesis that since light (which is, after all, only energy of a certain frequency) is proven to depress melatonin production so why not other forms of energy (Stevens 1987) - has been studied by Weaver (1979) and others like Wood (1998), Graham (1996) and Karasek (1998).  All found some evidence that this was true in the case of magnetic fields. Weaver also used just one particular frequency of electrical field and, at that level, results have been mixed. One wonders what results might be attained at other frequencies. Graham, whose work suggests that long-term exposure is likely to be the more important factor, highlights another factor that adds to the confusion. The vast majority of experiments in the report were short term. At icon we are aware that it tends to be the long-term studies which show greater melatonin interference - sometimes even at relatively low field levels.
The report concludes (pg. 113) that, The positive findings have been in subgroups, for which in general there is no obvious a priori reason why there should have been such a restriction of effect

3 Some research indicates an increased risk of breast tumours where melatonin production interference occurs and after exposure to some electro magnetic fields.

Other research reports no such findings. One suggestion has been that, possibly, genetic background plays a role. Usually, research was performed with chemically induced tumours in rats.

BreastThere have, however, been a number of Epidemiology studies (e.g. AGNIR 2001, Ahlborn 2001 Tynes and Anderen 1990, Demers 1991, Coogan 1996, Forseen 200) on both men and women and increases in breast cancer with power magnetic fields.
And, as we have covered in icon before, there are several studies (such as the Boston Nurses study, the Scandinavian Airlines study, the Seattle Study by Davis et al 2001, and the Danish study by Hansen in 2001), which indicate that long-term night-shift work and disrupted sleep patterns increase breast cancer risk.

4 Oestrogen (and particularly oestradiol) is known to increase risk of breast cancer.

This factor is becoming ever clearer. The actual mechanism could occur in a number of ways. In icon we have covered research by Wang at the University of Columbia, showing that oestrogen keeps stem cells in their undifferentiated state, causing them to grow and divide rapidly and progress to cancers. More commonly, oestradiol is known to attack cellular receptor sites and cause havoc inside cells, increasing sodium levels and acidity, reducing oxygen levels and p53 defence. That oestrogen fuels the fire of some cancers is beyond question.

5 The hormone melatonin affects the levels of other hormones in the body, some of the effects of which may increase the risks of cancer.

Melatonin is a hormone. According to the whole biological principle of homeostasis in the body, if you throw one hormone out of balance you throw most of them out too. As with all major hormones, cellular receptor sites for melatonin have been identified.
Several studies have now shown that melatonin can decrease the progression of breast cancer. Research studies have shown:
a that melatonin affects the oestrogen responsive pathway in cells (e.g. as above, and  Soule 1973; Lippman 1977; Wilson 1992: Cos 1998)
b that melatonin influences the levels of prolactin (e.g. Welch 1977; Reiter 1980; Vonderhaar and Biswas 1997; Lemus-Wilson 1995)
c that melatonin influences the levels of IGF-1 (e.g. Lissoni 1995; Holdaway 1997; Kajdaniuk 2002)
All three hormones are known to play a part in the progression of various cancers, including breast cancer.

Why not adopt a Precautionary Approach to EMFs?

The report in question basically states that the case that EMFs are the cause of breast cancer is not proven.
However, as regular readers will know, we find this quest to prove single causes of cancer nave at best. We believe that only rarely is one single factor likely to cause a cancer, and that, far more likely, a host of factors in combination contribute to either direct mutational changes on the cellular DNA and/or contribute to indirect weakening of crucial protective elements of the immune system.
Moreover, we believe there needs to be a significant step-change in cancer thinking in the UK so that, instead of chasing the White Elephant and trying to prove beyond all doubt that it exists, we start to take a Precautionary Approach in the UK: One that warns people of scientifically identified heightened risk factors so that they can take appropriate steps. This Precautionary Approach is by no means unique to CANCERactive and is already used in several other countries.
To my mind, within the 600 plus expert scientific papers presented in the report, and a large number of others that they did not include, plus the recent decision of IARC to consider declaring lack of sleep/night shift working a carcinogen. there is clearly enough evidence on each step in the cancer forming process (i.e. that some EMFs depress natural melatonin levels under certain conditions, and that this gives a freer rein to oestrogen, IGF-1 and prolactin to stimulate the cancer creation process) to warrant at least a Precautionary Stance on EMFs. In a limited way we have already seen this with the Government stance on the new building restrictions near electricity pylons and power lines. In Taiwan they have gone further and ordered the removal of 1500 phone masts siting various health concerns, including cancer!

Cancer Treatment

There were also several expert scientific papers suggesting that good levels of melatonin can act to suppress tumour growth - be it through its own activities as a free radical scavenger and antioxidant, or through stimulation of the immune system, or through oestrogen, prolactin or IGF-1 interference, or a combination of all of these.
So for cancer prevention and cancer treatment, follow the example of the oncology leaders. For example, supplement with melatonin. I know of two UK oncology Professors who take melatonin every night 30 minutes before retiring (3 mgs is a normal level). Some hospitals and oncology units have experimented with melatonin supplementation and achieved good results.
A couple of problems though:
Firstly, synthetic melatonin is not available generally in Europe, (it is available on Prescription) and is only known to most doctors as something to help you sleep!
However, you can buy it freely in supermarkets in countries from the USA to Thailand and you can legally buy from overseas web sites for your own personal consumption.
Secondly, some synthetic melatonin products can lose potency quite rapidly. Melatonin was always thought to just be a human chemical but we are now learning that this is not true. We have covered research on plant melatonin in Cancer Watch (it was from the skins of red grapes) and there is a product named Asphalia that seems to have similar properties.  Asphalia is a blend of edible grasses and other natural nutrients, and is manufactured by Coghill Research Laboratories. Click this link to go to our shopping trolley.
For peace of mind you may think supplementation is a route well worth exploring - especially as levels decline with age , or if you suffer irregular sleeping patterns or, indeed, if you have cancer.

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