Many people who enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages rejoiced not long ago, when researchers told us that light to moderate daily consumption of alcohol helps to promote good health. A little alcohol a day has been found to lower a person’s risk of dying from heart disease and stroke, improve circulation and lower blood pressure.
But it is important to note that when scientists say “light to moderate daily consumption,” they mean no more than two daily drinks for men, and no more than one daily drink for women. Exceed those numbers, and you quickly cancel out any beneficial effects, and increase the risks for many diseases, including heart disease, hypertension and stroke — the very ones that light consumption helps to prevent.
Another serious illness that has been strongly linked to over-imbibing is cancer. Alcohol is so strongly associated with cancer, in fact, that the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has classified alcohol as a “Group 1 carcinogen” since 1988. Group 1 is the agency’s highest-risk category.
Numerous reviews of studies have concluded that drinking alcohol can and does cause cancer. What’s more, researchers have found that there is no “safe” amount of alcohol that will not increase cancer risk: even as little as one drink per day increases risk.
Alcohol is in fact blamed for 1 in 30 cancer deaths each year in the United States. The link is twice as strong in the case of women and breast cancer: 15 percent of breast cancer deaths in women were related to alcohol consumption. It is alarming, but important to note that thirty percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths were linked to drinking one and a half alcoholic drinks a day — or less.
One study review in the United Kingdom concluded that people drinking four or more alcoholic drinks a day had around five times the risk of developing mouth and pharynx cancers, compared to people who did not drink at all or drank only occasionally. That same review found that even people who drank no more than one drink a day increased their risk of mouth and pharynx cancers by 20 percent.
With respect to breast cancer in women, a 2012 review of medical studies concluded that drinking just one alcoholic beverage a day increased the risk of breast cancer by five percent. Several studies have found that the breast cancer risk increases by 7 to 10 percent with every additional alcoholic drink that a woman consumes daily.
A new report detailing these findings was published online in February 2013, in the American Journal of Public Health.
Researchers compiled data from a variety of sources. They found that along with increasing the chances of a woman dying from breast cancer, alcohol increases the chances of men dying from cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus. These three cancers cause six thousand alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. each year, decreasing the person’s lifespan by an average of 18 years.
Previous studies had found drinking to be a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and in women, breast cancer.
Alcohol consumption is also one of the main risk factors for liver cancer. Heavy drinking can cause liver tissue to become scarred — cirrhosis. Cirrhosis, in turn, increases the risk for liver cancer.
The scientists in this latest study review tell us that they don’t yet know exactly how alcohol goes about increasing cancer risks. They believe that alcohol functions as an adversary in different ways: it can be a chemical irritant to the body’s sensitive cells. A favored theory is that when alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde in our bodies, acetaldehyde causes cancer by damaging the cells’ DNA and harming their repair capabilities. Alcohol may also act as a “solvent” for other carcinogens, such as those found in tobacco smoke, helping those toxins seep through cell walls more easily.
Other related cancer risks from alcohol consumption:
- Alcohol increases acetaldehyde levels in saliva. A 2012 study found higher levels of DNA damage in the mouth cells of people after they had consumed alcohol
- Alcohol increases levels of the hormone estrogen in women’s blood. High levels of estrogen are associated with breast cancer
- Alcohol reduces folate levels in our blood. Folate is a B vitamin that’s important in preventing cellular DNA damage
- Alcohol increases the levels of free radicals that our bodies produce as a natural byproduct of cell metabolism. Free radicals are reactive atoms or molecules that steal electrical charges (electrons) from other atoms or molecules they come into contact with, destroying the cell from which they took the charge. Increased free radical formation is strongly linked to different cancers
- Combining drinking with smoking increases cancer risk even more. Tobacco is a risk factor for mouth, esophagus and liver cancers. Alcohol and tobacco together pose a much greater danger than either does by itself. A study in the UK found that the risk of liver cancer was almost ten times greater in people who smoked and were also heavy drinkers, compared to those who drank but did not smoke
- And the type of alcohol consumed does not matter — all beverage types, including wine, beer and mixed drinks can increase cancer risk. The risk comes from the alcohol (ethanol) in the drink; the more a person drinks, the more alcohol they ingest.
Scientists in the U.S. urge people to weigh the pro’s and con’s of light alcohol consumption, and to limit intake to one drink a day for women, and two drinks a day for men. The British government makes similar recommendations. As far as indulging, it cautions male citizens not to drink more than 3-4 drinks too often, and women should not consume more than 2-3 drinks too frequently.
If you’ve been a heavy drinker before or are currently, it is not too late to cut down. In the case of mouth, throat and esophagus cancers, for instance, the risks for these cancers decrease over time in people who give up drinking.
By Lisa Pecos