Page last updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2008
New study of alcohol and cancer of the upper digestive tract
Beer and spirit drinkers could face an increased risk of cancer of the upper digestive tract (the gullet and the oropharynx). However, the risk is more than compensated for in people who choose to drink a large proportion of their alcohol intake as wine. These drinkers have a much lower risk of upper digestive tract cancer when compared with teetotallers.

The protective benefit of wine is thought to be due to it containing resveratrol, which inhibits the initiation and progression of malignancy, according to a new survey carried out in Denmark.

The findings confirm evidence that this form of cancer is comparatively rare, with only 156 cases occurring in the study of 28,000 individuals over 13 years.

Previous investigations have revealed an association between alcoholic beverages and cancer of the oesophagus, but their findings have been limited as they relied on retrospective evidence. The new findings are much stronger as the re-searchers followed three on-going prospective surveys into the health of the Danish people. They combined the subjects from these groups and thus monitored 15,000 men and 13,000 women for between two and nineteen years.

Participants drinking habits were recorded at the outset, and then analysed in relation to any tumour that developed over the subsequent years. Alcohol intake was measured in units consumed per week .

The results showed that, in comparison with abstainers, individuals who drank 10.5 - 31.5 8g units per week in the form of beer or spirits only were three times more likely to contract upper gastric tract cancer. However, subjects with the same overall intake, but who consumed 30% or more of their intake as wine, halved their risk of developing the cancer in comparison to non-drinkers. The risk for alcohol abusers (defined as those consuming over 69 units a week) was twelve times greater than that of abstainers. Smokers of 20g or more of tobacco each day were also five times more likely to develop upper gastric tract cancer than non-smokers.

The underlying reason for the differing effects of wine and other alcoholic beverages in this research is as yet uncertain.A partial explanation is offered in that wine contains substances such as resveratrol which inhibit the initiation and progression of malignancy. Other possible influences are nitrosamines, which can become carcinogenic when altered by biochemical changes within the body. Nitrosamines occur in beer and spirits but are present in insignificant quantities in wine. Further research is required to clarify these possible mechanisms behind the observed variations in cancer rates in different types of drinker.

Source: 'Population based cohort study of 'the association between alcohol intake and cancer of the upper digestive oesophageal tract.' British Medical Journal 1988 317, M.Gronbaek, U.Becker et al.

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