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The Breast Cancer and Red Wine Link

The Breast Cancer and Red Wine Link

For years, press reports have been touting the benefits of red wine for heart health, but that does not necessarily mean that red wine is a healthy drink. For example, studies investigating the relationship between breast cancer and red wine consumption have produced controversial findings, with some (but not all) studies suggesting that regular red wine consumption may be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. However, these controversial findings are not surprising as red wine contains both potentially cancer-fighting polyphenols and cancer-causing substances (alcohol).

In this article, we first take a look at the impact of the individual red wine constituents on a woman's breast cancer risk, and then review some of the human studies that have examined the association between red wine consumption and breast cancer risk.

The Good: Red Wine is Rich in Resveratrol and Anthocyanins

You may have already heard of resveratrol, a red wine polyphenol that has been associated a wide range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of breast cancer. Much of the potential anti-cancer power of resveratrol has been linked to its ability to lower estrogen levels by acting as an aromatase inhibitor.

In addition, red wine contains anthocyanins, plant pigments that are known for their exceptionally strong antioxidant properties. Indeed, the health-boosting properties of some of the world's most famous superfoods, such as the elderberry and the black chokeberry, derive largely from these plant pigments.

The Bad: Red Wine Contains Alcohol

But red wine also contains alcohol, and consumption of alcoholic beverages has been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer. In fact, a study published in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reports that even low and moderate alcohol consumption can increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. According to this study, the increase in incidence caused by every additional alcoholic drink consumed per day on a regular basis is around 11 per 1000 women in developed countries. This increase is significantly higher for breast cancer than for cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, larynx, liver, or rectum.

It has been suggested that the association between alcohol consumption and the development of breast cancer in women may be linked to the effects alcohol has on hormones: alcohol raises estrogen levels, which in turn encourages the growth of breast cancer cells.

Findings of Human Studies on Have Been Controversial

As red wine contains both potentially cancer-fighting compounds (resveratrol, anthocyanins) and cancer-causing substances (alcohol), the million-dollar question is: does drinking red wine cause breast cancer, or does it help prevent this devastating disease?

Turns out, this topic is controversial at best. A French case-control study found that women who drank wine or beer with meals had a higher breast cancer risk than non-drinkers. Furthermore, the link between wine consumption and breast cancer risk was found to be dose-dependent, meaning that the higher the alcohol consumption, the higher the risk. This study, published in the September 1984 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, involved 1,010 women with breast cancer and 1,950 women with non-malignant diseases.

By contrast, a large, multicenter, population-based case-control study published in the March 2009 issue of the Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that neither red nor white wine was linked to breast cancer risk in women.

The Bottom Line

The controversial findings of the human studies investigating the link between wine consumption and breast cancer risk highlight the need for further research in this area. In the meantime, purple or red grape juice can offer a great, healthy alternative to wine for those who love the idea of reaping the health benefits resveratrol and anthocyanins, but who are worried about the effects of alcohol.

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