Important Information on Women and Alcohol

Is moderate alcohol consumption good for you or bad for you? For women, the research has been contradictory and confusing.

On the one hand, a wealth of evidence shows that moderate drinkers (one to two drinks a day) enjoy longer, healthier lives than either heavy drinkers or teetotalers. They are less likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of senility, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Moderate drinkers even get fewer colds!

On the other hand, the same amount of alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. A statistician would probably argue that the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption clearly outweigh the risks. Far more women die of heart disease than of breast cancer. Nonetheless, breast cancer is a source of great anxiety for many women.

Now, a new study out of Australia may resolve this dilemma for women who enjoy alcoholic beverages. The study found that the increased risk of breast cancer associated with moderate alcohol consumption could be completely cancelled out by a diet high in folic acid.

Folic acid belongs to the family of B-vitamins. Although folic acid is found in many foods, certain things increase your body’s requirements, including stress, pregnancy, and alcohol intake. Some drugs, including birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy, can also reduce absorption of this nutrient.

The Australian study confirmed that women who drink moderately have an increased rate of breast cancer–except for those who eat a diet that is high in folic acid. These women had the same risk of breast cancer as women who do not drink at all. (Folic acid does not affect breast cancer rates one way or another in women who do not drink.)

If you enjoy (and tolerate) alcoholic beverages, this new information makes it possible to reap all of the protective benefits of moderate alcohol consumption–without increasing your risk of breast cancer. The key is to ensure an adequate daily intake of folic acid. Check your multivitamin to ensure that it contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid–and then be sure to take your vitamin every day.

In addition, include folate-rich foods in your diet every day. The best sources are leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, broccoli, asparagus. Other sources include bean sprounts, wheat germ, and soybeans.

A final caution: The health benefits of alcohol consumption apply only to moderate drinkers. (Moderate alcohol consumption is 1 to 2 drinks per day if you are a woman and up to three drinks per day if you are a man.) Heavy drinkers get none of the protective benefits and suffer many additional health consequences from over-consumption of alcohol. See the box at right for important information about how to calculate your intake.

Sources: Laura Baglietto, Dallas R English, et al. Does dietary folate intake modify effect of alcohol consumption on breast cancer risk? Prospective cohort study British Medical Journal, Aug 2005. Link to article

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