Tip #8: Drink Moderately
“It is an unfortunate reality that alcohol is a drug that causes cancer,
in fact alcohol causes approximately one in every ten cancers in the EU.
Consumers of alcohol have a basic right to be informed of this unfortunate reality…”
Dr Nick Sheron, Royal College of Physicians
What cancers are caused by alcohol?
The effect of alcohol is different in men and women. If you are a woman, drinking alchohol contributes to the risk of cancers of the pharynx, larnyx, oesophegous, colorectum and breasts (based on 25g per day). In men, there is a low risk of lung cancer, stomach, colon and rectum. A medium risk in the oesophagus, the larynx and liver and a higher risk in the oral cavity.
What are the facts?
The International Agency on Research on Cancer Monographs has declared alcohol carcinogenic.
It is the ethanol within alcohol that is carcinogenic and it is impossible to differentiate between different risks associated with different alcohol. According to some studies, 10% total cancer in men and 3% total cancer in women could be attributable to alcohol consumption
If you drink alcohol, whether beer, wine or spirits, moderate your consumption to two drinks per day if you are a man or one drink per day if you are a woman.
European Code Against Cancer and Scientific Justification: third version 2003
Know the risks:
Genetics, environment, and lifestyle habits can all heighten your risk of getting cancer. We can’t do anything to change our genes, and we often can’t do much to change our environment. But lifestyle habits are a different story.
Drinking too much alcohol is one lifestyle habit that can increase your risk of developing certain cancers. This does not mean that anyone who drinks too much will develop cancer. But numerous studies do show the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of developing certain types of cancer.
For example, a group of Italy-based scientists reviewed more than 200 studies examining alcohol’s impact on cancer risk.The collective results of these studies clearly demonstrate that the more you drink, the higher your risk for developing a variety of cancers.The National Cancer Institute identifies alcohol as a risk factor for the following types of cancer:
At least 7 out of 10 people with mouth cancer drink heavily. Drinking five or more drinks per day can also increase your risk of developing other types of cancers, including colon or rectal cancer. In fact, summary estimates from the recent World Cancer Research Fund report indicate that women who drink five standard alcohol drinks each day have about 1.2 times the risk of developing colon or rectal cancer than women who do not drink at all.
People who drink are also more likely to smoke, and the combination increases the risk significantly. Smoking alone is a known risk factor for some cancers. But smoking and drinking together intensifies the cancer-causing properties of each substance. The overall effect poses an even greater risk.
The risk of throat and mouth cancers is especially high because alcohol and tobacco both come in direct contact with those areas. Overall, people who drink and smoke are 15 times more likely to develop cancers of the mouth and throat than nondrinkers and nonsmokers. In addition, recent studies estimate that alcohol and tobacco together are responsible for:
- 80 percent of throat and mouth cancer in men
- 65 percent of throat and mouth cancer in women
- 80 percent of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, a type of esophagus cancer
- 25 to 30 percent of all liver cancers
WOMEN AND CANCER
One recent, groundbreaking study followed the drinking habits of 1.2 million middle-aged women over 7 years. The study found that alcohol increases women’s chances of developing cancers of the breast, mouth, throat, rectum, liver, and esophagus. The researchers link alcohol to about 13 percent of these cancer cases.
In addition, the study concluded that cancer risk increases no matter how little or what kind of alcohol a woman drinks. Even one drink a day can raise risk, and it continues to rise with each additional drink. While men did not participate in this study, the researchers believe this risk is likely similar for men.
This study also attributes about 11 percent of all breast cancer cases to alcohol. That means that of the 250,000 breast cancer cases diagnosed in the United States in 2008, about 27,000 may stem from alcohol.
KNOW THE REASONS:
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how and why alcohol can promote cancer. There are a variety of possible explanations.
One explanation is that alcohol itself is not the primary trigger for cancer. We know that metabolizing, or breaking down, alcohol results in harmful toxins in the body. One of these toxins is called acetylaldehyde. Acetylaldehyde damages the genetic material in cells and renders the cells incapable of repairing the damage. It also causes cells to grow too quickly, which makes conditions ripe for genetic changes and mistakes. Cancer can develop more easily in cells with damaged genetic material.
In addition, recent animal studies have shown that as cells try to break down alcohol, they cause the body to produce additional amounts of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). VEGF promotes the growth of blood vessels and organ tissue. But, the flip side of having too much VEGF is that it allows blood vessels to grow in cancer cells that would die on their own. This allows the cancer cells to develop into tumors.
We also know that alcohol can damage the liver, causing cirrhosis. Cirrhosis results when too much scar tissue builds up within the liver and leaves it unable to perform its vital functions. One of the many complications that can result from cirrhosis is liver cancer.
Hormones may be the link between alcohol and breast cancer. Alcohol can increase the amounts of some hormones in the body, including estrogen. An excess of estrogen may lead to breast cancer.
Finally, genetics may play a role in preventing some heavy drinkers from developing cancer. A European research team examined 9,000 people with similar lifestyle habits to determine why some of them developed mouth and throat cancers, and some did not. Of the participants who were heavy drinkers, those who did not develop cancers had a particular genetic alteration that enabled them to break down alcohol about 100 times faster than in those without it. The study suggested that this gene is the reason why some people are less likely to develop cancer in response to heavy drinking.
KNOW THERE’S A BRIGHT SIDE:
Fortunately, studies show that you can reduce your risk for cancer by drinking less. A recent Canadian report analyzed studies from 1966 through 2006 and concluded that risk reduction is possible, specifically for head and neck cancers. The study found that as people abstained from drinking, their risk for developing cancer plunged. After 20 years of abstinence, former drinkers had the same risk for head and neck cancers as people who never drank.
Moderate & Binge Drinking
Moderate or “low-risk” drinking
Research shows that people who drink moderately may be less likely to experience an alcohol use disorder (AUD). These drinking levels, which differ for men and women, are:
No more than 4 drinks on any single day AND no more than 14 drinks per week
No more than 3 drinks on any single day AND no more than 7 drinks per week
To stay low risk for AUDs, you must keep within both the single-day and weekly limits.
Even within these limits, you can have problems if you drink too quickly or have other health issues. To keep your risk for problems low, make sure you:
- Drink slowly
- Eat enough while drinking
- Plan to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
- Take medications that interact with alcohol
- Have a medical condition that alcohol can aggravate
- Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
Heavy or “at-risk” drinking
For healthy adults in general, heavy drinking means consuming more than the single-day or the weekly amounts listed above. About 1 in 4 people who drink above these levels already has alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse problems.
Binge drinking means drinking so much within about 2 hours that blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels reach 0.08g/dL. For women, this usually occurs after about 4 drinks, and for men, after about 5.
Drinking this way can pose health and safety risks, including car crashes and injuries. Over the long term, binge drinking can damage the liver and other organs.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
Drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can take a serious toll on your health. Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:
- Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
- Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
Research also shows that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol may protect healthy adults from developing coronary heart disease.
Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:
- Steatosis, or fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
Alcohol and Cancer Risk
Source: The website of the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov)
Clear patterns have emerged between alcohol consumption and the development of the following types of cancer:
- Head and neck cancer: Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, particularly cancers of the oral cavity (excluding the lips), pharynx (throat), and larynx (voice box) (4). People who consume 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 or more drinks per day) have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing these cancers than nondrinkers (4). Moreover, the risks of these cancers are substantially higher among persons who consume this amount of alcohol and also use tobacco (5).
- Esophageal cancer: Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for a particular type of esophageal cancer called esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (2). In addition, people who inherit a deficiency in an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have been found to have substantially increased risks of alcohol-related esophageal squamous cell carcinoma.
- Liver cancer: Alcohol consumption is an independent risk factor for, and a primary cause of, liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) (6). (Chronic infection with hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus are the other major causes of liver cancer.)
- Breast cancer: More than 100 epidemiologic studies have looked at the association between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer in women. These studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake. A meta-analysis of 53 of these studies (which included a total of 58,000 women with breast cancer) showed that women who drank more than 45 grams of alcohol per day (approximately three drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer as nondrinkers (a modestly increased risk) (7). The risk of breast cancer was higher across all levels of alcohol intake: for every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day (slightly less than one drink), researchers observed a small (7 percent) increase in the risk of breast cancer.
The Million Women Study in the United Kingdom (which included more than 28,000 women with breast cancer) provided a more recent, and slightly higher, estimate of breast cancer risk at low to moderate levels of alcohol consumption: every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day was associated with a 12 percent increase in the risk of breast cancer (8).
- Colorectal cancer: Alcohol consumption is associated with a modestly increased risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. A meta-analysis of 57 cohort and case-control studies that examined the association between alcohol consumption and colorectal cancer risk showed that people who regularly drank 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing colorectal cancer as nondrinkers or occasional drinkers (9). For every 10 grams of alcohol consumed per day, there was a small (7 percent) increase in the risk of colorectal cancer.
“…Consumers of alcohol can substantially lower their risk of developing cancer by drinking less, and drinking less often”
Dr Nick Sheron, Royal College of Physicians
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