Making Merry Part 2: Is alcohol safe?

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My parents loved France. When my father was alive, they used to visit France every year. Their trips included visits to their favourite wine chateaux, where they acquired new finds for their wine cellar. My mother, a retired doctor, was--indeed, still is--an avid reader of the British Medical Journal. So of course, my parents were delighted when studies started coming out claiming that a glass of wine a day would help prevent cardiovascular disease. "Got to have our rations," they would chuckle, as they settled down to a good dinner of home-grown vegetables with a glass of excellent wine.

Alas! A new report claims that, where cancer is concerned, no amount of alcohol is safe.
This unsettling warning is offered in the 2014 World Cancer Report (WCR), issued by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In fact alcohol was declared a carcinogen as far back as 1988. A causal relationship exists between alcohol consumption and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon-rectum, liver, and female breast; a significant relationship also exists between alcohol consumption and pancreatic cancer. This relationship is dose-dependent, meaning that the more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk. Alcohol consumption may also play a part in the causation of leukemia, multiple myeloma and cancers of the cervix, and skin--although in these latter cases, more research is needed before a definite conclusion could be drawn.

Unfortunately, some of the studies suggest that even light drinking is associated with increased risk for cancers of the mouth, oesophagus and breast. Here I must admit to some skepticism, as these studies involved self-reporting about the amount of alcohol consumed. In my experience, people typically report only about half their actual use.

Does the type of alcohol matter? In general, not, according to this report. However, hard liquor like whiskey and vodka is especially dangerous for the delicate tissues of the oesophagus (gullet). And smoking really compounds matters, since alcohol and tobacco have been found to have a synergistic effect in terms of cancer causation in the mouth, larynx, pharynx and oesophagus.

What about alcohol's cardio-protective effects? This depends upon using alcohol the way my parents did. Remember, my Mum actually read the studies carefully and critically. They had a half glass each--a glass at most--in the evening with dinner. On the other hand, a patient of mine insisted on the beneficial effects of two to three glasses of wine each night. A Vietnam veteran, he was probably self-medicating PTSD. And of course, he did develop not only liver disease, but also hypertension and stroke--both of which are associated with heavy alcohol use.

The best approach drinking wine remains the nuanced Ayurvedic view described in our last blog. Here are a few pointers based on the latest research:

  • If you drink, only drink lightly
  • Don't binge or indulge in heavy drinking bouts
  • Don't smoke, especially if you drink
  • Avoid hard liquor
  • If you are at high risk for breast or colon cancer, don't drink at all.
  • A good meal in good company is the best intoxicant, even without wine

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Dad growing the vegetables they had at dinner with wine!

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This page contains a single entry by Alakananda Ma published on January 19, 2015 12:56 PM.

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