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Wine May Lessen Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Patients undergoing treatment for breast cancer see benefits from moderate drinking

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: July 22, 2009

A clinical study by an Italian oncology center has found that women who drink wine while undergoing radiation treatment see fewer side effects than women who don't drink.

The Radiotherapy and Palliative Care Unit, along with the research department at the Catholic University of Campobasso, in southern Italy's Molise region, examined the extent of tissue damage on 348 women who were being treated for breast cancer. The findings are slated for publication in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology.

Radiation therapy for cancer involves bombarding afflicted areas with radiation to kill cancerous cells. A medication regiment to protect against extensive radioactive tissue damage accompanies this process. But often, the study text states, "these agents have several drawbacks, in that they are very expensive, they have sometimes severe side effects, and they have the potential to protect tumor cells as well as healthy cells from the effects of radiation." While antioxidants and vitamins A, C and E offer some protection against tissue damage in animal studies, "a diet that is radio-protective in humans has yet to be identified."

The Italian researchers looked at components of the Mediterranean diet, which they theorize is protective against cancer, in order to see if one aspect or another may be helpful for those undergoing the discomfort of radiation therapy.

The Mediterranean diet is high in seafood and low-fat meats, fresh fruits and vegetables. Olive oil is the fat of choice and the consumption of red meat is rare. The moderate consumption of wine, usually red, also accompanies the evening meal. And it was this final point that researchers decided to examine, since wine components have been shown to have "radio-protective effects" in previous studies.

However, the potential protective effect of moderate alcohol consumption against the incidence of breast cancer is a topic of great debate in the medical community. Recent studies point to even low amounts of alcohol as a risk factor for the disease. Other studies show that a certain red-wine compound, resveratrol, may actually aid the chemotherapy process, and may protect the skin from damage from ultraviolet radiation.

"However, the radio-protective effects of wine and its components have not been studied in patients undergoing radiotherapy, per se," the text states.

The 348 women in the study were treated with radiation therapy for their breast cancer between February 2003 and June 2007 at the clinic. The level of tissue damage from the radiation was measured by taking skin samples. Deep tissue samples were not examined, though Alessio Morganti, lead author and director of the radiotherapy unit, says this is likely to be included in future study.

The researchers compared the extent of damage in the skin tissue to the drinking habits of the women in an attempt to assess any relationship. All of the women in the study who drank (103 of the study participants) drank wine: 22 drank half a glass per day, 59 drank one glass per day, 20 participants drank two glasses a day, and two women drank three or more per day.

The scientists found that women who drank a glass per day had the least amount of skin toxicity, with 15 percent tissue damage, compared to 40 percent in the control group, 30 percent among the half a drink per day group and 32 percent for women who drink two glasses daily.

When the scientists crunched the data, "the moderate daily consumption of wine is associated with 75 percent skin lesion reduction compared to teetotalers," said Morganti.

The head of research, Giovanni de Gaetano, stressed that less is more, however. "In the case of women undergoing breast cancer radiotherapy, we’re talking of one glass of wine a day, thus a very low dose, consistent with Mediterranean habits," said Gaetano in a statement. "Of course it would not be presently correct to suggest teetotalers to start consuming wine before undergoing radiotherapy, but what once again emerges from this research is the validity of Mediterranean diet as a healthy lifestyle."

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