Alcohol and Stem Cells: Worse than I Thought?

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We have always told stem cell patients to avoid drinking more than a glass of wine before a stem cell procedure. This was based on data from studies showing that alcoholics are more prone to damaging bone stem cells, and that can cause osteonecrosis. However, alcohol may be more damaging to stem cells than we first believed. Let’s review some new research.

The Effect of Stem Cell Damage Due to Alcohol Consumption

According to a new study, alcohol is harmful to stem cells, but to best explain how this stem cell damage occurs, a closer look into what is happening was needed. The catalyst is the chemical acetaldehyde (labeled a carcinogen by the IARC), organically created when the body metabolizes or breaks down, the alcohol in the liver. Incidentally, this process is also credited for that nasty hangover the morning after you’ve over-imbibed. So how exactly does alcohol harm our stem cells in the first place? Acetaldehyde is the culprit in this relationship between alcohol and stem cells as it actually breaks the cell’s DNA. Let me explain.

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Alcohol and Stem Cells: Acetaldehyde Breaks DNA

In the new study, researchers analyzed the chromosomes and studied the effect on the DNA of mice that were given alcohol. The study did confirm what was already known, that the acetaldehyde produced can indeed damage stem cell DNA, and it does this by causing breaks in the double strands of the DNA. If you are familiar with the spiral-ladder-like shape of a molecule of DNA, the two sides of the ladder make up the strands. The more interesting finding here, however, is in how the body attempts to repair the acetaldehyde-damaged cells.

In order to save the cell from a quick death, so to speak, the body usually repairs the cell. However, it can also perform a poor repair job, rearranging chromosomes and creating genomic instability and something called deletion mutations. It’s these mutations that create oncogenetic cells (cells containing cancer-causing genes). So in other words, if the process happens to go south due to a shoddy repair, we now potentially have a cancer cell that if activated can proliferate and lead to cancer. And all of this, according to the new study, is stimulated by the acetaldehyde damage to stem cell DNA.

A word on cells with cancer-causing chromosomes. We get these cells in our body every day, but a normal healthy immune system attacks and kills them. However, cancer can happen when the immune system isn’t strong and diligent enough to get rid of these cells.

Despite this relationship between alcohol and stem cells, alcohol isn’t the only thing harming our stem cells…

Other Ways You May Be Harming Your Stem Cells

Alcohol may not be an issue for you, but this doesn’t necessarily mean your stem cells are in tip-top shape. Let’s look at some other ways you may be harming your stem cells:

The upshot? Alcohol does have an impact on stem cells. Since this isn’t a human study, we really have no idea if that glass of wine will impact your stem cell procedure or not. Hence, until we know, I’d recommend staying totally off the sauce for a few weeks before and after your procedure.

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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