Your daily glass of beer or wine may not be so innocent after all.
Recent research has found a link between alcohol consumption and 7 different types of cancer, including breast, colon, and liver cancer.
The study review, which is published in the scientific journal Addiction, argues that the evidence directly linking alcohol and cancer can no longer be ignored. The review examined 10 years of research conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organizations cancer body, and more, according to the Guardian (1).
Jennie Connor, former Head of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago University in New Zealand and author of the study, said (2):
“There is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites in the body and probably others … Even without complete knowledge of biological mechanisms [of how alcohol causes cancer], the epidemiological evidence can support the judgment that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breast.”
Although the average citizen is unaware of the connection, the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services list alcoholic drinks as a known human carcinogen (3).
Connor added that the substance is likely to cause skin, prostate, and pancreatic cancer. It’s also worth mentioning that cancer risk due to alcohol is dose-dependent, meaning that the more you drink per week, the higher your risk.
Currently, the American government’s Dietary Guidelines suggests that women should stick to 1 alcoholic drink per day or less, while men should stay below 2 a day. 1 drink is equivalent to 12 oz of beer, oz of wine or 1.5 oz of spirits (4).
Going over this limit has its consequences: Chugging down 3.5 drinks can double or triple your risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus cancer. It can also increase your risk of colon, rectum, and breast cancer by 1.5 times.
Other organs affected include the ovaries, stomach, uterus, bladder, and kidneys as well as the lymphatic system.
How Alcohol Causes Cancer
Alcoholic drinks contain ethanol, which is broken down by your liver and the bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract into acetaldehyde, a genotoxic carcinogen (5).
The toxic substance prevents your cells from repairing themselves and even causes faster-than-normal liver cell growth, which can lead to improper gene expression in these new cells.
The process of digesting alcohol also generates reactive oxygen species (free radicals), which the damages DNA, proteins, and fats within your body and can cause cancer to develop.
Additionally, alcohol impairs nutrient absorption, including vitamin A, folate, carotenoids, which are important for DNA production and maintenance. It even has the ability to increase hormone levels, which can lead to estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast and ovarian cancer.
Lastly, the processes that create alcohol also creates harmful substances like nitrosamines, asbestos fibers, phenols, and hydrocarbons.
What Experts Are Saying
The connection between drinking and alcohol is clear to experts, but the population is a little harder to convince.
Dr. Jana Witt, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer, said: “We know that nine in 10 people aren’t aware of the link between alcohol and cancer. And this review is a stark reminder that there’s strong evidence linking the two.”
A study by Dr. Witt’s organization found that only 1 out of 5 Americans surveyed knew that alcohol could cause breast cancer while 4 out of 5 people understood the link between heavy drinking and liver cancer.
It can take 10-15 years of sobriety to completely reverse your increased cancer risk, so it’s never too early to give up the bottle.
Also, heavy drinkers often engage in other risky behaviors, like smoking. This nasty habit actually increases the risk of alcohol-related cancers. Drinking and smoking increase the risk of cancer more than each habit does on its own.
If you’re still not convinced, Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware (an alcohol industry-funded education charity) warns that cancer isn’t all you have to worry about: “Regularly drinking more than the government’s low-risk guidelines puts you at increased risk of some types of cancer, and can also increase your risk of heart and liver disease, strokes and pancreatitis.”
The Doctor’s Advice
If you’re going take alcohol once in a while, stick to drinks that contain anti-cancer compounds like wine, which contains resveratrol, and prioritize mixed drinks made with low-alcohol content ingredients like beer, cider, and wine. You can also try entertaining your guests with interesting juices instead of alcoholic drinks.
It’s also a good idea to space out your drinks with other things, like juice and water while out on the town. If you’re often tempted, go to restaurants that don’t serve alcohol and empty out your liquor cabinet: when drinking isn’t convenient, it becomes less tempting to do.
Instead of drinking for stress, swap your glass of wine for a relaxing cup of tea or a nice hot bath.