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Bodywork: Beware that cup of hot tea?

Can hot beverages really increase your risk of cancer? Our health expert weighs in. [Metro Creative Connection]
Can hot beverages really increase your risk of cancer? Our health expert weighs in. [Metro Creative Connection]

Adam’s journal

I’m not a frequent drinker of hot beverages, but when I’m not feeling well, a nice cup of steaming tea can help turn me around. Ditto for a hot chocolate on a chilly day.

But I just read that hot beverages — and hot tea in particular — may increase your risk of cancer. Really?

Dr. Prescott prescribes

Really. There have been a series of research studies linking hot beverages to an increased risk of esophageal cancer. The latest one came out last month, and it provides the most comprehensive evidence to date about the dangers of hot beverages.

Researchers spent more than four years studying 50,000 tea drinkers in Golestan, a province in Iran where the vast majority of the population drinks only two beverages, water and hot tea. After controlling for other variables (smoking, alcohol use) that could contribute to increased incidence of esophageal cancer, the scientists focused on a pair of variables: how much tea people drank and the temperature of that tea.

The scientists found that people who drank more tea (anything in excess of about three cups a day) at hotter temperatures (140 F or above) almost doubled their chances of developing cancer of the esophagus, a roughly eight-inch tube that connects the throat to the stomach.

Unlike previous studies, this one was conducted “prospectively,” which meant the scientists were able to rely on more than subjects’ self-reported perception of beverage temperatures. They had participants sample different teas to establish what their typical drinking temperatures were, so they were able to establish with a greater degree of certainty an “inflection point,” that moment at which risk begins to increase significantly.

Previous studies have associated consumption of other hot beverages like coffee with a greater incidence of esophageal cancer. So, the researchers (and the International Agency for Research on Cancer) have extrapolated and warn that the consumption of any beverage above 140 F could raise your chances of cancer.

Researchers don’t know for sure why hot beverages seem to increase cancer risk, but their hypothesis is that thermal injury causes inflammation, a process that can ultimately lead to disease-causing DNA damage. This makes sense, as similar processes lead from sunburn to skin cancer and from smoking to lung cancer.

Now, before you toss that tea kettle and delete your Starbucks app, this research doesn’t mean that you should avoid all hot beverages always. Rather, I’d simply encourage folks to be sensible.

Most of us don’t carry around thermometers, so we don’t know exactly how hot drinks are. The study found a marked decrease in cancer rates among those who waited a few minutes to allow their drinks to cool. Adding milk, creamer or a little cold water is also a great way to cool a drink.

Finally, it’s worth noting that even though the relative risk of esophageal cancer doubled, the overall rates were still pretty low: fewer than 400 cases among 50,000 people. Yes, it’s a good idea to avoid scalding drinks. But on the whole, the cancer risk posed by drinking hot beverages is similar to that posed by eating pickled vegetables. (And that’s a column for another day.)

Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF’s senior vice president and general counsel.