Drinking wine in moderation may offer protection from the onset of Barrett's Esophagus, a precursor to esophageal cancer, according to a study released Monday. Researchers found that subjects who consumed between seven and 14 glasses of wine weekly lowered their chances of developing the disorder by 56 percent. Those who drank beer showed no reduction of risk, and moderate to heavy consumption of spirits may raise the risk, according to the research conducted by Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., and published in the March issue of Gastroenterology. Heavy consumption of any alcohol may raise the risk.
Barrett's Esophagus (BE) occurs when gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or chronic heartburn, permanently damages the cells of the esophagus, the tube that transports food from the mouth to the stomach. Overflowing stomach acid burns the lining of the esophagus and, over time, the tissue is replaced by cells similar to those found in the intestine, explains Dr. Douglas Corley, a gastroenterologist and one of the study's leaders.
This abnormal healing of the esophagus may lead to a kind of cancer called an adenocarcinoma. "People with Barrett's Esophagus have a 30- to 40-fold higher risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma because the Barrett's Esophagus cells can grow into cancer cells," said Corley. Esophageal cancer is now the United States' fastest growing form of cancer, with the number of reported cases rising 500 percent in the past 30 years
BE currently affects 5 percent of the population, the study claims. There are no symptoms or warning signs, and doctors only discover the condition after an endoscopy, usually to monitor another ailment, such as anemia, heartburn or a bleeding ulcer. There are currently no treatments for BE.
To test if alcohol habits may have an impact on the development of BE and, therefore, a link to esophageal cancer, the scientists looked at data from the Kaiser Permanente Northern California population study, an ongoing long-term survey of the insurance plan's more than 3 million patients in the region. Corley's role in that study is to look at abdominal obesity and the consumption of dietary antioxidants in connection to BE. Corley previously found that eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day helps maintain a normal body weight and reduce the incidence of BE.
For the current research, Corley and his team examined 953 male and female patients, who were asked about their drinking habits as part of a litany of tests. They were categorized as nondrinkers, those who drink up to seven servings a week, those who drink seven to 14 servings and those who drink 14 or more. A standard drink was defined as a 4- to 5-ounce serving of red or white wine, 12 ounces of beer or a 1-ounce shot of liquor. If the subject drank one type of beverage more than 50 percent of the time, the team classified them as preferring that drink over others.
When Corley looked over the incidence of GERD and BE and compared it to drinking habits, he found that moderate wine drinkers were the group least likely to develop BE. In fact, wine drinkers who drank up to seven servings a week were 19 percent less likely to develop BE than nondrinkers, and 56 percent less likely if they drank seven to 14 servings of wine a week. Drinking anything more than that was associated with a higher risk overall (44 percent greater), but the scientists did not classify the subjects with the highest consumption rates by preferred beverage as the numbers of participants in those categories were too low to make a significant comparison.
Beer drinkers in the low and moderate categories showed no significant risk increase compared to nondrinkers. However, spirits drinkers showed an increase of 67 percent if they drank more than seven drinks a week. Drinking less than seven servings of spirits showed a protective effect, with a 19 percent lower risk than nondrinkers.
The study concludes that alcohol may not have a direct relation to BE, noting that the liquor drinkers tended to have the poorest diet and highest rate of obesity. "It's not actually clear that treating the acid reflux will necessarily prevent someone from getting Barrett's Esophagus," said Corley, in a statement. "The best way to prevent reflux is to maintain a normal weight."
The recent findings also echo an earlier meta-analysis that found drinking wine is not linked to the incidence of GERD. But Corley added that, in the case of BE, wine may offer an additional benefit. "Red wine and many foods, such as fruits and vegetables, contain antioxidants. It appears antioxidants may decrease the risk of getting Barrett's Esophagus."
The study adds to the conflicting evidence of wine's relationship to cancer. A recent Oxford University study found that wine increased the risk of women developing breast cancer and rectal cancer, while decreasing the risks of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, thyroid cancer and renal cell carcinoma. Past studies have found that wine can reduce the risk of lung cancer.
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