We all know that chronic, excessive alcohol consumption can dramatically raise one’s risk of cancer and other degenerative diseases. Cancer patients typically make some major lifestyle changes to increase their survival—and often this includes cutting back on (or eliminating) alcohol consumption. For many, this is very difficult, just as smoking and/or sweets are hard for others to eliminate.
But, all too often I find myself wondering if my clients are trying too hard to be healthy. I talk and talk about healthy habits, food choices, vitamins, and nutritional supplements. Eat this, not that, drink this, not that, etc. However, sometimes I feel like I forget to stress hard enough the need to enjoy life.
Healing from cancer can be hard; staying healthy can be even harder, as our motivation wanes. So just to be very clear — eat the cake; drink the wine; go on the trip; buy the dress—wear the dress. Life is too short to put happiness on hold.
While I really do not advise making a daily trip to the bakery, an occasional piece of birthday cake just isn’t going to matter. In fact, it will bring essential joy as you celebrate your or a loved one’s birthday. We know that sugar feeds cancer, but these days, so does everything else, so it seems — so an occasional treat is not all that bad.
As for alcohol consumption, we know that drinking in moderation is good for the heart—and can be good for the soul. Studies show that light to moderate drinkers are more social, which has a positive effect on longevity.
But what about alcohol and cancer?
When alcohol breaks down, it is converted into acetaldehyde, a toxin which damages DNA and hinders the cell mechanisms that would ordinarily repair it. Acetaldehyde also produces harmful free radicals that increase inflammation—cancer’s friend.
Thankfully, there are ways to help alleviate the potential harm. Therefore, while excessive consumption of alcohol undeniably damages the body, you don’t have to give it up completely. If you enjoy the pleasures of social or moderate drinking, you can help neutralize alcohol’s toxic effects by consuming certain nutrients and phytonutrients.
Further, should your preference be wine, it is good to know that red wine (and to some extent, white) contains some powerful anticancer nutrients, making it actually somewhat protective against cancer!
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to remind you of the perils of drinking alcohol and to educate you on ways to minimize the risks of alcohol consumption so that you can still enjoy it without so much guilt. After all, we know that stress and deprivation are not good for anyone — certainly not someone who has beaten cancer only to end up depressed. A glass or two of red wine now and then can be a very nice social experience and can be quite enjoyable–and healthful–just don’t over-do it.
The Skinny on the Vinnie…
Wine is good for the heart and may actually inhibit the development of certain cancers, including breast cancer. Interestingly, red wine is a good source of folate, biotin, vitamin B6, niacin, potassium, magnesium, and other important anticancer nutrients, so in itself, it is part of the solution.
The resveratrol in red wine has potent antioxidant and anti-cancer effects, suppressing the production of inflammatory cytokines as it protects, and even repairs damaged DNA – healing the injury before it can result in cancerous changes. Resveratrol also provides cardiovascular benefits by reducing LDL cholesterol and decreasing the stickiness of blood platelets.
Some studies have credited resveratrol with blocking the development of cancer at multiple stages – from tumor initiation through promotion and progression. Of course, in my humble opinion, you would have to overindulge to get enough resveratrol to effectively block cancer, and clearly that is not a good idea. Still, it is comforting to know that you will get some benefits from the resveratrol.
The quercetin in red wine also protects DNA in cells because collects around the nucleus of cells offering powerful anti-oxidant protection. It prevents tumor cell growth and has strong anti-inflammatory properties. It also stimulates liver function to detoxify estrogen and other carcinogenic agents, helping to remove them from the body.
Quercetin also binds to excess iron in your body. It removes it from tissues, and prevents its absorption. This process is called chelation. This is critical as iron can be a key ingredient in cancer cell growth. Quercetin has the ability to steal the iron from cancer cells which can stop their growth and induce cell death.
In summary, red wine is loaded with polyphenols, which can do a body good. That said, please limit consumption and be sure to consume adequate helper nutrients, which will be discussed below. Also, while the focus on this article is wine, the nutrients below will help protect you should wine not be your cocktail of choice.
Lastly, given that you would never eat conventional grapes laden with pesticides, please consider organic wines and spirits. Likely too you have seen some of the resent research indicating that organic wines from California are laced with pesticides. While this is true, this is also true of most organic crops from California and Mexico. Local organic is better, and wine from small vineyards that do not require pesticide use and which are irrigated with clean water are also a good option.
In general, protective components are carotene (think carrots), folate (B9), niacin (B3), vitamins B6, B1, C, D, E, and a few others in smaller amounts. A diet that includes foods rich in the antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene can promote a healthy inflammatory response in the body. In addition, lycopene, ursolic acid, lutein, and other phytochemicals in plant foods can provide protection. Herbs and spices including turmeric and ginger are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
I also recommend eating Brazil nuts or taking supplemental selenium as selenium levels tend to be reduced in people who drink alcohol regularly. Importantly, a deficiency of selenium can significantly increase your risk for cancer. Having a high-fiber snack with your cocktail is also a good idea.
Highlighting B Vitamins:
Acetaldehyde depletes cells of vitamin B-6 – a nutrient needed to prevent dangerous oxidation. Again, the body converts alcohol into DNA-destroying acetaldehyde, a carcinogen in the same family as formaldehyde. Acetaldehyde also interferes with the actions of folic acid and can lead to folate deficiency in heavy drinkers. Folate deficiency can impair the body’s ability to suppress cancer genes called proto-oncogenes.
A note on folic acid—research indicates that women who drink alcohol in moderation and have a high folate intake may not be at any higher risk of some breast cancers than those who abstain from alcohol. But when it comes to folic acid, go for the real thing– you can find it in abundance in citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans, and peas, and yes, red wine—all in the form of natural folate, which is much safer than synthetic folic acid (please don’t depend on the folate in wine…you need much more). If you take a supplement, be sure it is folate, not folic acid.
Acetaldehyde also robs the cells of Vitamin B-1, or thiamine. Experts say it is often thiamine deficiency – rather than the toxic metabolites of alcohol – that causes the brain degeneration associated with alcoholics.
Vitamin C is key in preventing oxidative damage caused by alcohol:
Alcohol depletes vitamin C, a vitamin that helps defend the body from alcohol damage. This potent antioxidant protects brain cells against the toxic effects of alcohol, and helps control brain levels of pro-inflammatory substances which are increased by alcohol and its toxic metabolites. Vitamin C also helps to regenerate vitamin E, which helps protect the brain and liver from the aging process. Therefore, supplemental C can be very helpful.
Antioxidants are called free radical scavengers because they neutralize free radicals in the body. An antioxidant such a vitamin C can donate electrons to the free radical, thus stopping the free radical from stealing another electron. To explain, antioxidants prevent oxidation damage by donating electrons to replace those lost to oxidation. This process of providing electrons is the reverse of oxidation and is called reduction. Our tissues maintain a controlled balance of reduction and oxidation, known as the ‘redox state’. Cells produce antioxidants and antioxidant electrons continuously in order to prevent oxidation damage.
Acetaldehyde from alcohol also depletes necessary glutathione, causing dramatic reductions in the body’s natural defense systems. Glutathione is the body’s ‘master antioxidant’. It binds to toxins and promotes their excretion via the bile and urine. N-acetylcysteine, or NAC, binds acetaldehyde, neutralizing its damaging effects, and replenishes glutathione levels in tissues.
NAC is also used for preventing alcohol- related liver damage and to combat toxicity from Tylenol use. It does this so effectively that it is used in conventional medicine – along with vitamin C – to treat acetaminophen overdoses.
NAC is most helpful when taken immediately before alcohol ingestion – but it can also be used after indulging as well.
Love your liver…
Alcohol is tough on the liver, and you depend on your liver to remove toxins from the body. Green tea and silymarin (milk thistle) prevent damage to the liver by acting as an antioxidant and enhancing the detoxification process. Grape seed extract and barley grasses are also helpful.
Milk thistle, in particular, is a natural remedy for liver regeneration that is backed by considerable modern research. Long used by natural healers to support liver health and function, milk thistle helps promote the elimination of toxins –including those related to alcohol consumption. Studies have shown that milk thistle’s active constituent, silymarin, can enhance the immune system, fight inflammation, protect DNA, and help to alleviate alcohol-induced liver disease.
In cell studies, silymarin has been found to inhibit the conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde, reduces liver cancer cell proliferation, stops the growth of blood vessels that nourish tumors, and promotes the regeneration of normal liver cells.
How much is too much? Most experts would say 1-2 drinks daily is okay. Don’t think because you abstain all week that you can have seven glasses of wine on Saturday night. Also, remember that the body needs time to metabolize each drink, so allow some time between that first and second cocktail. A good rule of thumb for alcohol consumption might be to avoid amounts that produce a hangover – for which acetaldehydes are primarily to blame.
Enjoy your wine if it brings you pleasure, but limit consumption and load up on the protective nutrients that may eliminate or reduce risk of cancers associated with drinking alcohol. Again, and this is very important– while there are clearly health benefits to drinking alcohol, moderation is imperative. The following is a great article that defines the pros and cons, especially the discussion on ethanol and methanol: Moderate Drinkers Live Longer than Non-Drinkers, Study Finds.
It is not my recommendation for you to use this information as a justification to start or continue drinking alcohol. There are many non-alcoholic sources of the anticancer nutrients mentioned above. Of course, it is good to know that there are certain nutrients and supplements that can help neutralize the damaging effects of alcohol should you choose to imbibe. My goal is simply to suggest that you not sweat everything, and that you spend time living, not just avoiding death.
~~If you don’t know your options, you don’t have any~~
Elyn Jacobs is a breast cancer survivor and holistic cancer strategist who helps people make better, healthier, non-toxic choices. She emphasizes the critical nature of addressing the root cause of cancer and not just its presenting symptoms (such as the tumor). Elyn specializes in understanding the role of estrogen in breast cancer and debunks the myths associated. She is a Contributing Editor for The Truth About Cancer and was creator and host of the Survive and Live Well Radio Show on the Cancer Support Network. Elyn is on the Medical Advisory Board for BeatCancer.Org and is on the Advisory Board to the Radical Remission Project. Elyn was the Executive Director of the Emerald Heart Cancer Foundation. Contact Elyn via her website. Elyn offers consults via Skype, phone or in person.