Consuming alcohol is a widespread habit and among the most popular means for people to relax and socialize. However, like all things in life, there’s a downside – alcohol consumption is increasingly being linked to cancer. While current research indicates that drinking in moderation does not cause cancer, excessive alcohol consumption can raise a person’s cancer risk. In this article, we explore the link between drinking and cancer and what you need to know to make informed choices.
The Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Alcohol is a complex substance that enters the body in various ways, through the stomach lining, liver, and blood vessels. When a person drinks, alcohol begins to absorb into the bloodstream very quickly and affects almost every part of the body, not only the mind but also the liver, heart, and pancreas. One of the main reasons why alcohol consumption is associated with cancer is because of the way that alcohol is metabolized by the body. As alcohol is broken down in the body, it produces harmful by-products that can cause cancer and other diseases.
The Link between Alcohol and Cancer
While the occasional glass of wine with dinner may not be a problem, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to various critical health problems, including cancer. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that there is an irrefutable link between alcohol consumption and several types of cancer. According to the report, drinking alcohol is a leading cause of cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, breast, colon, and rectum. The study found that around 3.6 percent of all cancer cases are alcohol-related.
How Alcohol Causes Cancer?
There are various ways that alcohol consumption can cause cancer. One way is by acting as an irritant, causing inflammation in the body, and making it difficult for cells to repair themselves. Alcohol can also damage DNA, which increases the risk of mutations that can lead to cancer. Finally, the body metabolizes alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can cause cancer by interfering with DNA replication and repair mechanisms.
The Impact of Moderate Drinking on Cancer Risk
- Breast Cancer: Even moderate drinking may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. A meta-analysis found that women who consume three drinks per week have a 15 percent increased risk of breast cancer than non-drinkers, rising to around 51 percent for those drinking more than six drinks per week.
- Colorectal Cancer: Moderate drinking does not appear to affect the risk of developing colon or rectal cancers. According to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, there is no increased risk of colorectal cancer in those who drink up to two drinks per day.
- Prostate Cancer: Evidence shows that moderate alcohol consumption may partially protect against the development of prostate cancer. A meta-analysis found that, compared with abstainers or occasional drinkers, men who had up to three drinks per day had a 12 percent reduced risk of developing prostate cancer.
The Impact of Heavy Drinking on Cancer Risk
The liver is where alcohol is metabolized, and heavy drinking can lead to cirrhosis, a condition where the liver becomes scarred and damaged. This damage can increase the risk of liver cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, heavy drinkers are six times more likely to develop liver cancer than non-drinkers or moderate drinkers.
Mouth, Throat, and Esophageal Cancer
Drinking alcohol can also increase the risk of developing mouth, throat or esophageal cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who drink heavily have a greater risk of developing these cancers compared to those who do not drink or drink in moderation. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol a person drinks regularly.
Colon and Rectal Cancer
Heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk of colon and rectal cancer cells. According to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, people who drink heavy alcohol have a 50 percent higher chance of developing colon cancer cells, and a 60 percent higher chance of developing rectal cancer cells, compared to non-drinkers.
The Bottom Line
The scientific evidence suggests that alcohol consumption does increase the risk of developing several different types of cancer. People who drink alcohol regularly should be aware of the risks and drink in moderation or abstain to minimize these risks. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women drink no more than one drink per day, and men drink no more than two drinks per day, to stay within moderate drinking guidelines.
Q. Can drinking cause all types of cancer?
A. Drinking in moderation and not binge drinking is unlikely to cause all types of cancer. However, heavy drinking can lead to many different types of cancer, including mouth, throat, liver, breast, colon, and rectum.
Q. How does alcohol cause cancer?
A. Alcohol can cause cancer in a variety of ways. It can raise estrogen levels, damage DNA, and cause inflammation in the body, all of which can increase cancer risk.
Q. How much alcohol is considered safe?
A. According to the National Cancer Institute, women should drink no more than one drink per day, and men should drink no more than two drinks per day. People who want to minimize their risk of cancer should consider abstaining from alcohol altogether.
Q. Is all alcohol created equal?
A. While all types of alcohol can raise someone’s cancer risk, studies suggest that drinking red wine in moderation may have health benefits. This is because red wine contains antioxidants, which can help prevent cancer and other diseases.
Q. Can I still drink alcohol but minimize my risk of cancer?
A. Yes, it is possible to minimize your risk of cancer while still enjoying alcohol. Instead of binge drinking, try to stick to the moderate drinking guidelines of no more than one drink per day for women, and no more than two drinks per day for men.
Q. Should I stop drinking if I’m concerned about cancer?
A. If you’re concerned about cancer, abstaining from alcohol altogether is the best option. However, people who still want to drink can minimize their cancer risk by drinking in moderation and not binge drinking.
- World Health Organization. (2018). Global status report on alcohol and health 2018.
- National Cancer Institute. (2021). Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet.
- American Cancer Society. (2021). Alcohol Use and Cancer.
- Shenoy, S., Yakoub, D., & Yaghmour, G. (2020). Alcohol and Cancer. StatPearls [Internet].
- Ma, Y., Yang, J., Wang, F., Zhang, P., Shi, C., & Zou, Y. (2016). Obesity and risk of colorectal cancer: a systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one, 11(12).