12/30/2012 09:50 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

'Tis the Season to Detox

Sharing feasts of food and drink with family and friends is a quintessential part of the holidays, but many of us tend to overload our bodies' natural defense systems. Try these three recommendations: limit your alcohol, eat fruits and vegetables, and dance. The fascinating science behind these suggestions is unveiled below. Understanding the 'why' of a recommendation allows for making good choices: "don't touch because it is hot and you will get burned" is more likely to have an effect than "don't touch" which may trigger rebellion and curiosity. The science focuses on enzymes. Enyzmes are proteins encoded by our genes which speed up biochemical reactions in the body.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that men should limit their intake to two drinks per day and women should limit their intake to one drink per day. The reason for limiting our alcohol intake is simple -- alcohol is a listed carcinogen, an agent that causes cancer, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The mechanism of how it causes cancer is similar to that of cigarette smoke. Alcohol is metabolized in the body to form acetaldehyde, which like many carcinogens of cigarette smoke, stick to DNA and mask the genetic code. The masking of the code causes errors because the code cannot be read properly by the cell's machinery during cell division. The errors become permanent changes to the sequence of the genetic code called mutations. Just as changes of single notes in a musical score effects the melody of a tune, the altered genes produce faulty enzymes. It is the accumulation of mutations over time which can lead to cancer. Some women may ask why there is an inequality in recommendations between women and men. The answer is because alcohol also increases the amount of circulating estrogen and increases in estrogen are a risk factor for breast cancer. So drink with your friends this holiday season but keep within the limits.

Uncle Bob may be able to drink his Asian colleague Mingyan under the table. The reason for differences in alcohol tolerance is due to variations in metabolic enzymes produced by your genes. This underlies the observation that many Asians are unable to drink alcohol without becoming ill. There is a common genetic variant among this population that produces an enzyme with a low ability to metabolize acetaldehyde, a step that helps rid the body of this carcinogen. In these people, acetaldehyde accumulates and leads to facial flushing and nausea.

Include fruit and vegetables in your feast

The antioxidants found in fruit and vegetables offer more than acting as molecular sponges to soak up dangerous free radicals in the body. One of the most startling facts we have learned about fruit and vegetables is that they contain components that can turn on genes that produce detox enzymes. Yes, food affects your genes. This is not nature versus nurture but rather nature hand-in-hand with nurture. The detox enzymes carry out important roles that help protect us from agents that cause cancer by playing a role in repairing DNA damage and modifying carcinogens so that they can be excreted quickly. Scientists have shown that people who drank fruit juices daily had less detectable DNA damage than those who did not. The protective affect disappears when the fruit juice intake was halted. Unfortunately we cannot store up the effects of fruit and vegetables and this is the reason that the recommendation states that intake must be daily.

Let's dance

Holidays are a break from the chains that bind us to a desk. So it is a time to dance, take a walk, or just move around. Exercise is a vital ingredient of good health and in many ways is medicinal. It also has several effects that help prevent cancer. Obviously it helps to maintain a healthy weight. As stated in a report by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout life may be one of the most important ways to protect against cancer. Physical activity has other effects such as boosting the immune system, stimulating defense enzymes, and reducing circulating hormones such as estrogen.

As a population, we "got the message" not to smoke. The message to limit alcohol intake and increase fruits and vegetable intake should be heeded during and after the holidays.

Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.

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