Alcohol and Cancer

I hate to be a bummer, especially during the hottest summer in a while, but…it seems that alcohol might cause cancer.

A paper published this month in the journal Addiction aimed to qualify the strength of the evidence that alcohol is causative in cancer.

A review of recent research showed evidence that:

  • Alcohol was causative in seven types of cancer: oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast.
  • There was also evidence of “gradient effects” meaning that the more you drink, the greater your risk.
  • There was some evidence of reversibility of risk in cancers of the larynx, pharynx and liver, which means when the consumption was stopped the risk decreased.

At any rate, the study conclusion is an ominous paragraph:

“There is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others. Current estimates suggest that alcohol-attributable cancers at these sites make up 5.8% of all cancer deaths world-wide.”

The biological mechanism–how alcohol actually causes cancer–is yet to fully be determined by research, but what the study suggests is that drinking and cancer are linked whether we like it or not.

What About the Health Benefits of Wine?

The study does say this:

“The same, or similar, epidemiological studies also commonly report protection from cardiovascular disease associated with drinking but a high level of scepticism regarding these findings is now warranted.”

What Should I Do?

Those of you in my practice know me to be a reasonable and moderate doctor. So what does this mean for the lovely gin and tonic you were planning to have on the dock this afternoon?

That depends.

Is that lovely gin and tonic a treat or a habit? Is it a daily occurrence that is turning into two (Fine, three.) gins on the dock and a glass of wine with dinner and an ounce of scotch as a night cap?

There are all kinds of reasons, why sustained daily use of alcohol is not good for you. We have written about it before. This is just another reason to do a “vice check” and make sure that your habits are not hurting you more than you intend.

Dear Furniture, This is Your Thyroid

We’ve written about thyroid many times in the past (see links at the end of this post), but a new study this spring from researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is the first one to suggest that there may be a link between polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and increased risk of thyroid problems in post-menopausal women.

Wait! What’s a PBDE?

PBDEs are flame retardants that are used in the manufacture of furniture, beds, clothes and other consumer items. They are also known endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with the normal function of our hormones. PBDEs mess around with estrogen levels in the body, and that has a downstream effect on the thyroid. As the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported in their article:

PBDEs have been used as flame retardants for decades, largely in furniture, in quantities up to 20% of the weight of the product. Over time, they migrate out of the furniture into the air, settle into dust in homes, schools, offices, and the outdoors, and accumulate in people’s bodies. Previous research has shown that these chemicals accumulate in fatty tissue and interfere with hormonal functions, including interference with thyroid hormones. Because it’s known that estrogen levels regulate thyroid hormones, researchers theorized that post-menopausal women may be particularly vulnerable to PBDE-induced thyroid effects.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used data from The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

That study began in the 1960’s and uses a combination of interviews and physical examinations to assess the health of the US population in everything from cardiovascular disease and infectious disease to environmental exposures. The scientists looked at nationally representative sample of women whose blood was taken in the 2003-2004 and had the levels of four common PBDEs measured.

What the researchers found was that the women with the highest flame retardant concentrations in their blood were far more likely than those with lower concentrations to have a thyroid problem.

If the women were post-menopausal, the chances of thyroid trouble in highly exposed women were even higher.

The study isn’t perfect–one limitation is its reliance on survey participants to accurately recall and report on any thyroid problems. Like many studies, it also doesn’t prove flame retardants cause thyroid damage, only that there appears to be an association between these two things. Another limitation is that the study was looking at the older flame retardant chemicals as the NHANES data is from 2003-04 and doesn’t report effects from newer chemicals.

What to do about it

What do you do? First, don’t panic. Almost everyone on the planet has PBDE exposure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reduce yours, and look closer if you feel there’s a problem. Here’s how to get started:

“Why Do I Have a Food Sensitivity?”

After receiving a food sensitivity test result and being told that he couldn’t eat gluten and dairy for a while, one of my younger patients emailed me to ask:

How does someone become sensitive to foods?

I thought it was a good question, and I thought it would be worth posting my reply for anyone who might have wanted to ask a similar question but never did…

Our immune system is meant to be reactive to strange proteins–things that are not “us”. For example, when you are infected with a bacteria or virus, those invaders are made up of proteins that are dissimilar to our own body proteins. Our immune system sees those proteins as a problem and reacts to them. That creates a lot of inflammation (things like fever and other signs of getting sick) which kicks that invader out of the body.

It’s a great system, but guess what? Foods are also made up of proteins that are not us. And because we have a very strong immune system in our digestive tracts to deal with any nasty little critters in our food and water, our bodies need a way to be able to swiftly act against any bacteria or virus in our food while at the same time NOT reacting to the proteins in the foods we eat.

Enter the microbiome–the “good” bacteria in our guts. We also call them our “gut flora”.

The good bacteria who live in our digestive system (there are between 200-300 different species) do many important things for us. One of them is to train our immune systems to not react to food proteins.

When our gut flora is working properly, it packages up the proteins in our food in a way that says to our immune system, “I know this is a protein that doesn’t look like YOU, but don’t worry about it. It’s okay.”  The immune system then ignores it and waits for something more interesting to react to.

When the gut flora is not balanced properly, it doesn’t do this job. When that happens, our immune system can start to see our food as a problem, creating chronic inflammation every time we eat. That, in turn, can lead to all sorts of health problems.

How does the gut flora get imbalanced? Exposure to drugs like antibiotics and steroids, and other chemicals. Parasitic infections. Being born via c-section. Poor diets. All of these things contribute to good flora going bad.

Which brings us back to your food sensitivity. To get your system back on track, we start by removing the food that you are reactive too. This decreases the inflammation in the digestive tract, allowing it to heal. To do that we want you to do things like eat good food (lots of fruits and veggies), take a good probiotic, and TRY to avoid antibiotics and steroids when possible. 

– Dr. Tara 🙂