Friday, July 11, 2008

Healed It on the Grapevine

Photo by Flickr user Greg_e, used under a Creative Commons license.

Following up on yesterday's gambling post, I'll admit there's one vice (other than coffee) that I do occasionally indulge. But science is increasingly casting doubt on how much of a vice wine actually is, and there's more good news about the red stuff this week. Note, though, that this is only preliminary research that hasn’t yet been tested out in actual female wine lovers:
New research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center shows that resveratrol, a natural substance found in red wine and red grapes, can suppress the formation of estrogen DNA adducts.

Although breast cancer formation involves a multitude of steps, most are fueled by increased estrogen. It collects and reacts with DNA molecules. Resveratrol, which is also sold in extract as a dietary supplement, prevents the formation of the adducts. It also suppressed two other known risk factors for breast cancer.

“We believe this could stop the whole progression that leads to breast cancer down the road,” said the study’s lead author Eleanor G. Rogan, Ph.D.

The amount of resveratrol found in one glass of red wine is enough to suppress the DNA adducts. The study was conduced in laboratory cultures and will need to be confirmed in larger human trials.

(Source: Ivanhoe)
Now, I’m sure the media will cloak this study in the usual caveats: The researchers said one glass, not one bottle. They only found helpful effects from red wine – not white wine, not martinis (more’s the pity). If you burn out your liver, avoiding cancer is kind of a moot point. I think most of us get that - and those who don't, generally aren't very susceptible to reasoned arguments anyway.

But these findings are interesting – and surprising – in light of recent research that showed even moderate drinkers to be at higher risk for breast cancer, regardless of the type of alcohol consumed. This effect appeared only for those cancers that feed off of estrogen - the same types that resveratrol promises to possibly interrupt. I’d like to know whether the beneficial effect of resveratrol outweighs the deleterious effect of the wine’s alcohol – a question that can only be answered in human trials.

The study that implicated alcohol as possibly promoting breast cancer did look at actual human beings, but it doesn't seem to have analyzed red wine separately. An earlier study that did so found that red wine offered no advantages. But adding to the confusion, red wine consumption has consistently been found to correlate with lower cardiovascular risks. A problem for all such studies is that it's hard to separate out other lifestyle factors, though it's reasonable to assume that a moderate wine drinker may have other habits that are healthier than someone who prefers mostly hard alcohol. Also, most of these studies can only prove correlation, not causation.

Such questions are hard for us laypeople to sort out because the American media still tilt puritan when it comes to drinking, especially where women are concerned. Reports on the health benefits of red wine are always spiked with warnings, as if the reader might otherwise proceed directly to the nearest liquor store – article in hand – and thence to the gutter. Similar research findings are treated more even-handedly in the German media, for instance – but that’s a culture where women aren't presumptively sluts and bad mothers if they have a drink, and where even obstetricians allow an occasional glass of wine in late pregnancy.

Until the implications of this latest study are clarified, I think the take-home message is the same as it’s been for quite a while: Moderate drinking – especially of red wine – has some benefits. It also carries some risks. If you don’t enjoy red wine, you shouldn’t choke it down. If you do, then here’s to your health. After all, pleasure is a huge part of living a healthy and good life.