Posted by on January 27, 2012 - 7:54am

Drinking red wine in moderation may reduce one of the risk factors for breast cancer, providing a natural weapon to combat a major cause of death among U.S. women, new research from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center shows. The study, published online in the Journal of Women’s Health, challenges the widely-held belief that all types of alcohol consumption heighten the risk of developing breast cancer. Doctors long have determined that alcohol increases the body’s estrogen levels, fostering the growth of cancer cells.

But the Cedars-Sinai study found that chemicals in the skins and seeds of red grapes slightly lowered estrogen levels while elevating testosterone among premenopausal women who drank eight ounces of red wine nightly for about a month.   White wine lacked the same effect.

Researchers called their findings encouraging, saying women who occasionally drink alcohol might want to reassess their choices.  “If you were to have a glass of wine with dinner, you may want to consider a glass of red,” said Chrisandra Shufelt, MD, assistant director of the Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and one of the study’s co-authors. “Switching may shift your risk.”

In the Cedars-Sinai study, 36 women were randomized to drink either Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay daily for almost a month, then switched to the other type of wine. Blood was collected twice each month to measure hormone levels.    Researchers sought to determine whether red wine mimics the effects of aromatase inhibitors, which play a key role in managing estrogen levels. Aromatase inhibitors are currently used to treat breast cancer.   Investigators said the change in hormone patterns suggested that red wine may stem the growth of cancer cells, as has been shown in test tube studies.

Co-author Glenn D. Braunstein, MD, said the results do not mean that white wine increases the risk of breast cancer but that grapes used in those varieties may lack the same protective elements found in reds.“There are chemicals in red grape skin and red grape seeds that are not found in white grapes that may decrease breast cancer risk,” said Braunstein, vice president for Clinical Innovation and the James R. Klinenberg, MD, Chair in Medicine.

The study will be published in the April print edition of the Journal of Women's Health, but Braunstein noted that large-scale studies still are needed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of red wine to see if it specifically alters breast cancer risk. He cautioned that recent epidemiological data indicated that even moderate amounts of alcohol intake may generally increase the risk of breast cancer in women. Until larger studies are done, he said, he would not recommend that a non-drinker begin to drink red wine.

The research team also included C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Women’s Heart Center, director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center and the Women’s Guild Chair in Women’s Health, as well as researchers from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Hartford Hospital in Connecticut.

Take home message:  This is a small study and larger studies are needed.   However, if you do enjoy a glass of wine and don't want to give it up, perhaps choosing red over white would be choice---at least until new data becomes available!

Posted by on November 29, 2010 - 1:01pm

Two scientific articles in the July 2010 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shed more insight on the chemistry of red wine that may explain why more doctors are suggesting that a little red wine may be heart-healthy.  Both articles focus on resveratrol, a chemical compound found in certain plants. It is called a phytoalexin because plants naturally produce it as an antibiotic substance to fight both bacteria and fungi. Plants containing resveratrol include the grapes and skins of grapes that produce wine, raspberries, mulberries, blueberries and cranberries.  There is growing evidence that resveratrol plays a role in plaque development, fatty tissue growth, and other biological mechanisms that impact the cardiovascular system.

In the first article by Fischer-Posovszky et al reported that resveratrol influences adipose (fatty) tissue mass.   Laboratory tests on human cells in vitro showed that resveratrol  blocked immature fat cells from developing and differentiating affecting the fat cells' ability to function.  These findings indicate that resveratrol might interfere with obesity and other metabolic effects that  could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In the second article, Hamed et al studied the effect of moderate red wine consumption on vascular endothelial function. Endothelial progenitor cells (EPC) are bone marrow-derived cells that are mobilized by the peripheral circulation when vascular repair is needed (e.g., peripheral arterial disease).  In this study, 14 volunteers consumed 250 mL (little more than 8 ounces) of red wine daily for 21 consecutive days.   The researchers reported an improvement on vascular endothelial function.

According to an editorial in the same journal, these findings may suggest that moderate wine consumption provides cardiovascular protection.  However, these findings also raise further questions about whether red wine (resveratrol) can reverse or attenuate established heart disease.    Human clinical trials are needed to substantiate these findings.

While we recognize the concerns about alcohol addiction, a surprising number of reports have come out in favor of moderate red wine drinking.  In fact, a recent report suggested that a periodic glass of wine during a normal pregnancy may be helpful to the mother.   It's hard for a layperson to determine what is hype and what is true.  I recently came upon a website run by the Institute on Lifestyles and Health at Boston University that critiques many of the studies that discuss the benefits and risks of alcohol.   It's web site can be found HERE.