More than a million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year, affecting about one in three Americans in their lifetimes. Although the chief risk factor is UV exposure from the sun, alcohol consumption may also play a role. Most of the cancers associated with alcohol use are in the digestive tract, from mouth cancer, throat cancer, and stomach cancer down to cancers of the liver and colon. These involve tissues with which alcohol comes in more direct contact. But why skin cancer?
A study of 300,000 Americans found that excessive drinking was associated with higher rates of sunburn. It “may be that heavy and binge drinking are markers for an underlying willingness to disregard health risks” and pass out on the beach, but it also may be because breakdown products of alcohol in the body generate such massive numbers of free radicals that they eat up the antioxidants that protect our skin from the sun. Plants produce “their own built-in protection against the oxidative damage of the sun,” and we can expropriate these built-in protectors by eating those plants to function as cell protectors within our own bodies. One might say fruit and vegetables provide the best polypharmacy—the best drug store—against the development of cancer.
The ingestion of plant foods increases the antioxidant potential of our bloodstream, which can then be deposited in our tissues to protect us against the damaging effects of the sun’s rays, but only recently was it put to the test.
Researchers studied 20 women and burned their buttock skin with a UV lamp before and after half of them ate three tablespoons of tomato paste a day for three months. There was significantly less DNA damage in the derrieres of those who had been eating the tomatoes. So, three months or even just ten weeks before swimsuit season, if we eat lots of an antioxidant-rich food, such as tomato sauce, we may reduce the redness of a sunburn by 40 percent. It’s like we have built-in sunscreen in our skin. Now, this isn’t as good as a high SPF sunblock, but “[m]uch of the UV exposure over a life time occurs when the skin is not protected; thus, the use of dietary factors with sun-protecting properties might have a substantial beneficial effect.”
It works both ways, though. Alcohol consumption decreases the protection within our skin. If you have people drink about three shots of vodka, within eight minutes—not after ten weeks, but within just eight minutes—the level of carotenoid antioxidants in their skin drops dramatically. If, however, you drink the same amount of vodka in orange juice, there is still a drop in skin antioxidants compared with the initial value, but drinking a screwdriver cocktail is not as bad as drinking vodka neat. Is the difference enough to make a difference out in the sun, though?
After the drinks, researchers exposed volunteers to a UV lamp and waited to see how long it would take them to burn, and the time span until they started turning red was significantly shorter after alcohol consumption than in the experiments in which either no alcohol was consumed or alcohol was consumed in combination with orange juice. That’s like an extra half hour out in the sun based solely on what you put in your mouth before heading to the beach. And, oranges are pretty wimpy—not as bad as bananas, but berries have the highest cellular antioxidant activity.
The researchers concluded that “[p]eople should be aware of the fact that the consumption of alcohol in combination with UV light [from sun exposure or a tanning booth] increases their risk of sunburn and therefore their risk of developing premature skin aging and even skin cancer.” If you are going to drink alcohol and be out in the sun, you should make sure you are using sunblock or, at the very least, drinking a strawberrydaiquiri or something else to reduce oxidative damage.