Yesterday morning I sat down and opened up a new blog post with the intention of writing about what I’ve learned about the health effects of alcohol. I thought this would be a good topic because (1) alcohol is a heavily debated subject in the health and wellness space, and (2) one of my good friends recently asked me a kind of funny, yet meaningful, question about health coaching and wine. Then my morning got the better of me (ie., I had to pay attention to my children) and now it’s the weekend and I’m sitting down again to do this post. However, since then, I’ve participated in an exercise around beliefs with another student in my coaching certification program. And I decided that my post about alcohol is really part of a bigger issue: beliefs around food and health.
So let’s go back to alcohol for a moment. But bear in mind you could substitute other words for alcohol in the next few paragraphs. Sugar, for example. Cake. Deli meat. Processed food. Bacon.
So this friend and I were hanging out poolside while our daughters were at swim team practice. I love this woman, she’s the cool to my hot(flash). While I’m all drama and chattiness and hand motions, she’s all calm and efficient with her words and stillness. My best friend in life is the same way. Clearly, when it comes to good friends, I have a type. Anyway, we were talking about the health coach thing, and she asked, “Aren’t you worried about being under a microscope?” And I was like, huh? And she said, “You know, like people will be watching for a misstep. Like if you have one too many glasses of wine?” Now I don’t know WHAT she is talking about, I have NEVER had too many glasses of wine.
Right, so I basically responded that I don’t really care if someone is judging me for drinking wine, my whole shtick is about balance and moderation, avoiding extremes, progress not perfection, making small changes to get big results, building better habits, etc. etc. But it got me thinking.
I have actually spent a fair amount of time researching this issue over the last few years. The National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and other organizations we generally trust have stated that there is a clear link between alcohol use and the risk of developing breast and other cancers. On the other hand, some of my favorite medical authors, Dr. Kristi Funk and the late Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, have noted that it’s a little more complex than that. How about red wine, particularly pinot noir, with its resveratrol and anti-estrogen properties (quite like the endocrine therapy given to most breast cancer survivors)? Look at that Greek island where everyone has wine with lunch and they're living longer than we are (of course they're also eating a lot of local veggies, herbs and fish, living in community, moving and resting). What if you just have one glass, with a meal chock full of cancer-fighting foods? Could there be some synergy there? Or as one oncologist pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing here, stress is absolutely a contributor to the expression of cancer, so three martinis on an empty stomach, probably not a good idea. But if a glass of wine with dinner is part of how a patient lets go of stress, then it’s probably not a problem.
Now listen, there are plenty of doctors and other medical professionals that would disagree with that statement. They may actually be right. Some medical professionals would also say you shouldn’t have any sugar. Or they’d point to the World Health Organization announcement that processed meats (hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage and some deli meats) are carcinogenic and are linked to increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.
If a cancer patient consumed a fair amount of alcohol over the years, ate hot dogs in the summer, had bacon with breakfast on the weekends and ordered dessert from time to time, did he cause his cancer? That is a very polarizing question. There are some out there that will say his lifestyle probably contributed to his cancer, but that’s good news because he can also contribute to his healing by eating plant-based and anti-inflammatory foods, green tea, mushrooms and all the wonderful phytochemicals out there that act as medicine.
Okay, but what if someone has an unfavorable genetic profile? A predisposition to getting a particular type of cancer or some other disease? Then does it not matter? Bring on the Twinkies and sausage and tequila, he's going to get sick anyway!
But hold on, there’s some really cool stuff out there about epigenetics, the ability to actually change gene expression through diet, lifestyle and other choices. The breast cancer gene is there, but maybe we can keep it from “turning on” by making sure the terrain is healthy. In other words, feed the body and spirit in a way that boosts immunity and the body’s ability to kill off any pesky cancer cells before they become life-threatening.
Is your head spinning yet? Let’s go back to that glass of wine. Or the slice of cake. Crispy bacon. The cheeseburger. Food has power, but our beliefs around food can cause us to give it too much power. I’m actually taking this verbatim from something my friend and fellow coaching student said yesterday. She suddenly realized she had been giving food too much power. And we ALL do that. Especially women. If you think that slice of cake is going to make you sick, fat or both, your brain is taking that in and, I promise: it’s sending danger signals to every cell in your body. Do you know what IS going to make you sick, fat or both? Chronic inflammation from stress. If you obsessively worry that you have cancer (or you're going to get cancer) because you spent your twenties going out for cocktails after work, you’re going to fire up your fight or flight response, your body is going to release hormones and neurotransmitters that cause inflammation, and that will take its toll on your health. Stress is good, in short doses, when we’re really in danger. Not when we’re stuck inside our heads beating ourselves up for what we ate or drank. It’s a slice of cake, not a saber-tooth tiger. But your mind might be telling your body they’re equally dangerous.
So don’t get me wrong. I generally eat pretty healthy, I probably eat more vegetables than a lot of people you know, I get out and move when I can. Sometimes it’s a long bike ride, sometimes it’s just a quick walk around the neighborhood because I have 20 minutes before someone gets off a school bus. I meditate. I pay attention to stress (even if I don’t always manage it perfectly). But I also have learned that if I have a glass of wine or a treat, it’s part of enjoying life. And that’s all it is. To quote one of my teachers, it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both and more.
Beliefs are powerful. And so are you.