Red wine, taken in moderation, reduces risk of prostate cancer

5 min read

Men who drink moderate amounts of red wine are only half as likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer as those who don’t drink it at all, according to a report in the June issue of Harvard Men’s Health Letter. What’s more, the beverage seems to be especially protective against the most advanced and aggressive cancers, lowering risk by about 60 percent.

The key word here is “moderate,” meaning four to seven glasses a week. The Harvard report warns that if one glass a day is good, don’t assume that two glasses are twice as good. Three Harvard studies have also concluded that those who enjoy alcohol in the same modest amounts benefit from a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, enlarged prostate, and erectile dysfunction.

Earlier research showed that alcohol consumption offered no protection against prostate cancer. But scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle went a little further. They separated the effects of different types of alcoholic beverages on a sample of 1,456 men between 40 and 64 years old. They found that drinking 35 or more glasses of beer a week for eight years or longer actually increased risk of getting the cancer. White wine wasn’t much help. But those who averaged four to seven glasses of red a week were 52 percent less likely to get the disease than nondrinkers.

It’s a happy conclusion for those who drink red wine in moderation, but no doctor is going to recommend that you start drinking alcohol to protect yourself from prostate cancer. The results come from only a single study; other research may contradict its conclusions as so often happens in medicine. That study, the Harvard publication puns, “is bound to mark an outpouring of new research.”

Why red wine?

Why red wine, and not white wine, beer, or hard liquor? The short answer is that no one really knows. Speculation focuses on natural antioxidants such as flavonoids and resveratrol. These chemicals may work against male hormones that stimulate the prostate gland.

Flavonoids are herblike compounds found in many plants. In experiments conducted in test tubes (versus in human subjects), flavonoids reduced the production of PSA, a substance produced by prostate cancer cells. Doctors use high PSA levels in men as a warning sign of the disease.

Resveratrol is abundant in the skins of red (but not white) grapes. Lab tests show that it interferes with the activity of cancer cells in various ways. According to the Hutchinson Cancer Center, it may reduce the levels of male hormones, like testosterone, which circulate in the blood and can fuel growth of prostate cancer cells. The compound is also available in raspberries, peanuts, and dietary supplements.

Resveratrol has been found to extend the lives of obese mice by Harvard Medical School researcher David Sinclair and his colleagues. That discovery, last year, led to a rash of media hype about drinking red wine to help you live longer.

Sinclair scoffs at such an idea, saying that a person would have to drink more than 100 glasses of red wine a day to get the same amount of resveratrol as the mice. But the chemical’s ability to put a brake on cell growth turns out to be promising enough for Sinclair to have formed a company, called Sirtris, to look into testing it on other diseases such as diabetes. And some of the people in Sinclair’s research lab are taking resveratrol supplements.

Obesity link

For the grossly overweight mice, resveratrol decreased their chances of developing age-related diseases by a third (31 percent). Until the same results can be demonstrated in humans, the best way to get the same result is to lose weight by diet and exercise. Studies at Harvard and elsewhere conclude that obese men have a significantly greater chance of developing aggressive and fatal prostate tumors than those who keep their weight down.

“Weight loss may help reduce your risk of prostate cancer, and it will also help protect you from a host of problems, from heart disease and high blood pressure to diabetes and erectile dysfunction,” notes Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Although erectile dysfunction is not life-threatening, the condition lowers the quality of life, so it’s nice to know you can get some protection just by walking about 30 minutes a day.

Instead of “buying into a crash diet,” Simon points out, “the best way is to adopt a healthy lifestyle. The key is to burn up more calories with exercise than you take in with food.” And that food should be prostate friendly, the same kind of food that protects your heart. Here are Simon’s recommendations: reduce trans fat and saturated fat; keep your calcium intake down (1,000-1,200 milligrams a day); and eat lots of fish, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. He particularly recommends prostate-friendly cooked tomatoes, but not raw tomatoes or pizza.

And you can wash it all down with a glass of red wine.