International Herald Tribune
While many people suffer from heartburn and gastric reflux disease, only a small number develop more severe ailments that can lead to esophageal cancer. Scientists who have been trying to understand what may protect against these conditions have identified an unlikely agent: wine.
Two studies published this month in the journal Gastroenterology suggest that people who drink wine in moderation are less likely to develop conditions that may lead to esophageal adenocarcinoma.
The reports are surprising because alcohol intake is a well- established risk factor for the other main form of esophageal cancer, squamous cell carcinoma. Researchers therefore warned that the findings were preliminary and must be confirmed by more intensive research.
In one new study, researchers at Kaiser Permanente found that drinking one glass of wine a day was associated with a reduction of more than 50 percent in the risk of developing Barrett's esophagus, though there was no reduction in risk for that disorder among those who drank either liquor or beer.
Barrett's esophagus, an erosion of the esophageal lining that can be caused by chronic heartburn or acid reflux, increases the risk of later developing esophageal adenocarcinoma 30- to 40-fold.
In the second study, researchers at Queen's University Belfast found that wine drinkers were at lower risk for reflux esophagitis, or GERD, an irritation of the esophagus caused by chronic heartburn.
Findings from the two studies are consistent with those from an earlier Australian report published in the same journal in December. That study found that drinking wine in moderation was associated with lower risks for the two forms of esophageal cancer.
"There is a lot of warranted skepticism about nutritional studies - one shows one thing and one shows something else," said Dr. Douglas Corley, a gastroenterologist and senior author of the Kaiser Permanente study. "But these are the first few studies that have looked at this, and they all find the same thing in three different populations in three different countries."
But in general, people who drink wine are different from those who drink beer or liquor, experts said. They tend to earn more and to be more educated, and it is hard for researchers to know if it is the wine or some other aspect of their lifestyle that protects their health in this case.
"This is an exploratory study, and my view is that further work needs to be done before we put too much weight on it," said Dr. Liam Murray, a senior author of the Irish study and a professor of cancer epidemiology at Queen's University Belfast.