Drinking wine with meals may do more than enhance the dining experience and aid digestion. According to researchers at Stony Brook University in New York, a glass or two of wine with dinner could also help to keep cancer away from parts of the digestive tract.
A study published in the September issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that wine drinkers are half as likely to develop colorectal cancer as nondrinkers. On the other hand, heavy beer or spirits drinkers are more than twice as likely.
The research, led by practicing oncologist Dr. Joseph Anderson, studied 2,291 patients who went to the university's medical center for colon screening to determine their risk for disease. Endoscopy is used to find a variety of cancer indicators, such as recently developed tumors that are greater than a centimeter in area, as well as patches of certain types of tissue.
The participants were older than 40 and were divided equally between men and women. They answered a set of questions about their lifestyle choices, such as how often they ate red meat, whether they smoked or exercised and, if they drank alcohol, what kind they drank and how much they consumed. (A drink, they were told, would be a 12-ounce glass of beer, 1 ounce of hard liquor, or a 4-ounce glass of wine.) Patients with a family history of colorectal cancer or who changed their drinking habits over the last 10 years were excluded.
The participants were classified into one of three groups. "Abstainers" either did not drink or drank very lightly--less than one drink during an average week. "Moderate drinkers" had one to eight drinks per week, and "heavy consumers" drank more than eight servings per week.
After comparing the endoscopy results to the answers from the lifestyle questionnaires, the researchers found that wine drinkers had the lowest risk for colorectal cancer out of all the groups. When compared with the abstainers, the moderate and heavy wine drinkers were 45 percent and 47 percent, respectively, less likely to develop cancer.
Moderate beer drinkers showed a lower risk than abstainers as well, at 19 percent, while moderate spirits drinkers had a risk level similar to that of abstainers. Heavy beer and spirits drinkers, however, showed a much greater risk, with both groups being two-and-a-half times more likely to develop colon cancer than those who hardly ever drink.
Anderson said that he isn't sure why wine drinkers fared so much better, but speculated that wine may contain chemical compounds that act as anti-cancer agents, such as resveratrol. "It could be the resveratrol or perhaps due to lifestyle," he said. "It is the latter which is difficult to tease out." The study noted that wine drinkers tended to make better lifestyle choices, such as not smoking and maintaining healthier body mass indexes.
Anderson's results build on other recent studies, including one from Denmark that found that wine drinkers may have greater protection from rectal cancer, but found no difference on colon cancer. Another study in 2003 found that alcohol consumption, regardless of type, helped reduce the occurrence of bowel polyps related to colon cancer.
Anderson, who estimates that he performs an average of 120 endoscopies per month, is taking his results to heart. "I tell my patients that if they must drink, they should drink red wine," he said.