Alcohol and cancer
- There is no doubt that alcohol can cause seven types of cancer.
- The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your risk of cancer.
- There is limited risk if you only drink a little – such as one small drink a day for women or two for men.
- You don’t need to be drunk to increase your risk.
- Drinking and smoking together are even worse for you.
The consequences of drinking too much alcohol go well beyond the evening’s embarrassing antics or the morning’s hangover. Scientific studies have confirmed that alcohol can also cause cancer.
Obviously, not everyone who drinks will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that cancer is more common in people who drink alcohol than people who don’t.
Which cancers are affected?
Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of:
- Mouth cancer
- Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat)
- Oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
- Laryngeal cancer (voice box)
- Breast cancer
- Bowel cancer
- Liver cancer
Every year, alcohol causes around 4% of cancer cases in the UK, about 12,500 cases.
Along with smoking, alcohol causes the majority of mouth and food pipe cancers. In the last decade, mouth cancer has become much more common and this may be because of higher levels of drinking.
Can light drinking increase the risk of cancer?
Alcohol can increase the risk of cancer at levels far too low to make an average person drunk. It’s not just people who have ‘drinking problems’ who have higher risks.
As little as 3 units a day can increase the risk of mouth, throat, food pipe, breast and bowel cancers. That’s the amount in one pint of premium lager or a large glass of wine!
Alcohol has a weaker effect on the risk of breast cancer than on other cancers, but it starts having an effect at a lower level.
What about heavy drinking?
The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing cancer. Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver, which can in turn cause liver cancer.
Heavy drinking can also cause heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and, of course, injuries.
Which is worse: binge drinking or spreading my drinking across the week?
Research tells us that the total amount of alcohol you drink over time has a much bigger effect on cancer risk than when or how it is drunk.
People are more likely to develop cancer if they drink a lot of alcohol, no matter whether they save it up and drink it in one go, or drink it steadily over a week.
Does drinking matter if you smoke?
People who smoke and drink multiply the damage they receive, because tobacco and alcohol work together to damage the cells of the body. Alcohol makes it easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco.
Studies have found that, on average, people who smoke and drink are up to 50 times more likely to get some types of cancer than people who neither smoke nor drink.
Do all types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer?
All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It is the alcohol itself that does the damage, regardless of whether it is in the form of beer, wine or spirits.
Elsewhere in this section, you can read about whether alcohol has any benefits for your health.
Why are women recommended to drink less than men?
The slightly different recommendations for men and women are based on biological differences between the two sexes.
- A woman’s liver produces less of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol. So alcohol stays in a woman’s body for longer.
- There is some evidence that drinking just one unit of alcohol a day can significantly increase the risk of breast cancer. Smaller bodies can absorb less alcohol than large ones and on average, women are smaller than men.
- Because of their curvy shape, women also tend to have more body fat and less body water than men. This means that any alcohol a woman drinks becomes more concentrated in her body that it would be in a man of the same size.
How does alcohol cause cancer?
There are many possible explanations for how alcohol causes cancer. It is likely that it causes different types of cancer in different ways.
Here are the most likely theories:
1. Acetaldehyde, the hangover chemical
In your body, alcohol is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This is one the main reasons why we get hangovers.
But acetaldehyde does more than give you a headache in the morning. It can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage.
Acetaldehyde also causes liver cells to grow faster than normal. These regenerating cells are more likely to pick up changes in their genes that could lead to cancer.
2. Oestrogen and hormones
Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen, testosterone and insulin. Unusually high levels of oestrogen increase the risk of breast cancer.
3. Liver cirrhosis
Drinking lots of alcohol can damage the cells of the liver, causing a disease called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis makes you more vulnerable to liver cancer.
4. Other chemicals
Alcohol makes it easier for the tissues of the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco. This is one reason why people who smoke and drink multiply the damage they receive and have especially high risks of cancer.
Folate is an important vitamin that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. People who drink alcohol tend to have lower levels of folate in their blood and some studies have found that cancer is more common in people with low folate levels.
Red wine contains high levels of a chemical called resveratrol, which has some anti-cancer effects in laboratory cells. But this is a far cry from saying that drinking red wine can protect people from cancer. For a start, red wine contains many other chemicals, which may not be so beneficial, including alcohol itself.
Based on studies done so far, there is no strong evidence that red wine could protect against cancer. One small but widely reported study claimed that men could halve their risk of prostate cancer by drinking 1-2 units a day. But much larger, stronger studies have contradicted this conclusion.
Recently, a newspaper report claimed that red wine could prevent breast cancer, based on a study which found that resveratrol blocks some types of DNA damage in breast cancer cells. But we can’t conclude from this that red wine protects against cancer.
Wine in general
It is clear that all types of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer, including both red and white wines.
The bottom line is that it is a bad idea to drink wine to prevent cancer. There is no strong evidence that this would work. And moderate drinking can easily turn into heavy drinking, which can definitely cause cancer.
Reasons for cutting down
Eight million adults in the UK currently drink at risky levels and British teenagers are some of the heaviest young drinkers in Europe.
The more you cut down on alcohol, the more you reduce your risk of cancer. But there are many other benefits of drinking less.
Reduce your risk of several diseases
Aside from embarrassing injuries, alcohol can also cause heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and pancreatitis. Cutting down can help you reduce your risk of these conditions.
Alcoholic drinks are very high in calories. But these are ‘empty calories’ with virtually no useful nutrients. Alcohol also increases your appetite, so you might eat more heavily when you drink.
If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to consider reducing the amount you drink.
Feel better, sleep better
Alcohol is a depressant. Sometimes this effect can relax you, but at other times, it can lead to feelings of unhappiness and depression.
Alcohol can also interfere with your natural sleep patterns, so by cutting down, you may find that you sleep better.
If you’re a regular drinker, you might find that you save a lot of money by cutting down.