We have been hearing for over 10 years that 1 glass of red wine per day for women and 2 glasses of red wine per day for men would be recommended in order to prevent a heart attack or a stroke. Now we are confronted with new research from Boston showing that even small amounts of alcohol are bad for you as alcohol is a carcinogen (=cancer producing substance). Misinformation like this occurs when science concentrates only on one angle of health, such as cardiovascular disease prevention and the other part of the equation, the cancer producing (carcinogenic) effect of alcohol, is disregarded.
In 1996 this Australian study followed 1236 men and 1569 women 60 years and over for more than 5 years and studied their mortality rates as a function of alcoholic drink intake. The authors found that there was a short-term protective effect with regard to cardiovascular/stroke mortality. But due to the fact that mortality was the end point for both cardiovascular disease and for cancer, the study was mostly taken as evidence that alcoholic beverages would protect to a certain degree from strokes and heart attacks. The authors were aware that alcohol was cancer causing as they stated, “Those taking any alcohol exhibited an increased proportion of deaths due to cancer at the expense of a reduced proportion of CHD and stroke deaths”. But this part was not mentioned in the popular press or in future alcohol/cardio-protective recommendations. The authors also were aware that the observation time of 5 years was on the short side. We know from other studies that alcohol toxicity requires a longer observation time such as 15 to 20 years or longer to show significance in a multitude of cancers.
As already mentioned above, recently a new survey of alcohol-caused cancer was published and went through the popular press. Dr. Timothy S. Naimi from Boston University Medical Center was the main investigator of an international team of scientists. The study found that every year 18,200 to 21,300 cancer deaths in the US (that is 3.2% to 3.7% of all US cancer deaths) are directly caused from alcohol consumption. The authors of the study determined that every person who dies from alcohol related causes lost on average approximately 18 years of his/her life (scientists call this “years of potential life lost”). 51% of women developed breast cancer from alcohol exposure, 62% of men came down with upper airway and esophageal cancers. Less than 1.5 drinks per day caused between 26% and 35% of alcohol-related cancer deaths. There was no safe lower margin. The authors concluded, “Reducing alcohol consumption is an important and underemphasized cancer prevention strategy”.
Interestingly, in 2006 other research looked at alcohol caused cancer cases in the world based on WHO data and came to the conclusion that with the increased worldwide consumption, particularly in East Asia, preventative steps by eliminating or replacing alcoholic drinks would be wise.
A recent study in 2012 where cancer rates in the US were compared between Hispanics and Caucasians showed that Hispanics had higher rates of stomach cancer, liver cancer, uterine/cervix cancer and gallbladder cancer. The authors concluded that Hispanics need more screening done such as Pap tests and that effective vaccines (like Gardasil) should be used. In addition effective interventions should be applied to reduce obesity, curtail alcohol consumption and reduce tobacco use.
Studies have shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, not even the famous 1 drink for women and 2 drinks for men (with regard to heart attack prevention), because cancer incidence increases with increasing alcohol consumption in a linear relationship.
What does alcohol do in the body that it is so dangerous to your cells? Many cancer researchers have researched this question in detail. Essentially, alcohol is by itself a toxin for your cells (the targets being sub particles in your cells called microsomes and mitochondria). Your liver metabolizes alcohol into acetaldehyde, your kidneys excrete it and your lungs exhale it (this is how a breathalyzer can detect how much you have been drinking). All of these chemical changes in your cells release free radicals, which in turn attack other cells. This sets up a chronic inflammatory process, which breaks down your immune system, leads to cell mutations and finally to cancer.
What protects you from cancer? It is the antioxidants that stabilize the above-mentioned processes: vitamin C, glutathione, vitamin D 3, curcumin, multiple vitamins, magnesium, flavonoid foods, cruciferous foods (like broccoli), exercise and soluble fiber.
So, if you were serious about cancer prevention, you may want to stop any alcohol intake and take the above supplements instead. The heart attack and stroke protection will be achieved by flavonoid foods (perhaps specifically adding resveratrol 250 mg per day as well) and exercise.
If you were less conscientious about cancer prevention, at least reduce your alcohol consumption perhaps to the occasional glass of wine or beer, but avoid high percentage spirits and remember, the less the better! You may be toasting to ill health with that glass of wine. Say no to false advertising of the wine industry! Your body will thank you for it.
More information on alcoholism: http://nethealthbook.com/drug-addiction/alcoholism/
Here is another reference where you can read about the recent Boston study:
Last updated Nov. 6, 2014