Dr. L. Matthew Schwartz

by L. Matthew Schwartz, MD, FAAPM&R

Local doctor L. Matthew Schwartz tackles your reader questions about health every two weeks. Please feel free to ask him any question about physical medicine, pain and integrative holistic medicine or wellness. Send questions to askthedoc@chestnuthilllocal.com

Sara from Elkins Park asks: I just read that alcohol consumption increases one’s risk for cancer (the article specifically noted breast cancer). Yet every so often we see reports that regular, casual drinking (a glass of red wine, a beer or two) can actually increase longevity. What gives? Where does medicine stand on alcohol and its impact on health?

Standard medical education regarding the amount of alcohol one ought to consume (or limit for oneself), includes a recommendation that up to two drinks, typically red wine, is healthy for your heart and longevity, yet it is recommended that if someone doesn’t already drink, he/she should not start.  This has been the standard message that physicians have received and conveyed over the past many years.

However, indeed, a recent article in Mother Jones does correctly portray accurate data.  Breast cancer risk for a woman increases from 12 percent to 14.4 percent if she drinks two  or three drinks per day.  On its face, this seems like a relatively small increase, however we are trying to reduce our risk of developing cancer, in light of the many potential causes of it.

In the past, and currently, industry promotes its product in sometimes unscrupulous ways.  Tobacco, sugar, soda, and fossil fuel industries have very strong lobbyist presence in Washington and use their public relations and advertising arms to try to normalize and promote their products as safe.  We understand otherwise.  When alcohol is metabolized, it turns into acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Perhaps ANY exposure to ANY alcohol is bad … but small amounts of alcohol reduce stress and people may beneficially lower their inhibitions to more sincere communication.  Of course, too many people inappropriately self-medicate for psychological impairments with alcohol – other wellness behaviors, including counseling, are far healthier routes to take.

In fact, there are many ways that we can moderately reduce our risk of developing cancer.  The very most important thing would be to quit smoking.  After that, following an anti-inflammatory diet of preferably organic foods high in antioxidants and very low in animal products is the best way to much more significantly reduce one’s cancer risk than worrying about how much alcohol one drinks in moderation.  Additional anti-cancer efforts would appropriately include optimizing sleep, reducing stress, maintaining social connection, and performing regular aerobic exercise.  If we are all taking good care of ourselves, we can relax a bit about drinking a little alcohol.  None of us will live forever and we all make choices that feel good but may be detrimental.

To be clear, a drink equals one ounce of spirits (many cocktails are made with more than one ounce per serving), one beer, or one glass of wine.  A reasonable recommendation would be to have 1 drink per day at most; OR less than or equal to two  per day if less than or equal to seven per week.  By doing this, we will sleep better, maintain more elevated mood and libido, and have more energy.  Cheers!

Dr. Schwartz practices physical, pain and integrative medicine in Wyndmoor. He is board certified in these specialty fields. He trained at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson University. For more, see MyHealth360.org