Alcohol - cancer risk and alcohol

Many people enjoy a drink with an evening meal or a glass of wine to unwind after a busy day. But did you know your risk of cancer goes up even if you drink just one or two alcoholic drinks a day?

Alcohol and cancer – the evidence

Group of young people drinking wine, alcohol

There is strong evidence to show that alcohol causes cancer. A review of research discovered having just one or two standard alcoholic drinks (25 grams of alcohol) per day increases your risk of several cancers. These include cancer of the mouth, throat and oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), colon, rectum, liver and breast.

FACT: If you smoke and drink, your chances of getting mouth or throat cancer are even greater.

What about a single glass of red wine?

You’ve probably heard it time and time again that a glass of red wine is good for you. While red wine may have some protective benefits for your heart, this isn’t true for your cancer risk. According to published research, all types of alcoholic drinks increase your risk of cancer, even red wine. A review of 113 studies found a modest but a significant link between light drinking and breast cancer. It discovered just one drink a day (12.5 grams of alcohol, about 1.5 units) increases the risk of breast cancer by five percent in women.

Another review reported a significant link between light drinking and bowel cancer. It found those who drank slightly over one unit per day had a seven percent greater risk of colorectal cancer than non-drinkers or occasional drinkers. This figure jumped to 21 percent among people who drank one to four drinks a day.

FACT: It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it is.

How does alcohol raise cancer risk?

Precisely how alcohol affects cancer risk isn’t completely understood. What we do know is that cancer is triggered by changes in our cell DNA. It’s likely that there are several ways in which alcohol raises your cancer risk.

  • Alcohol can irritate and damage the tissues that line your mouth, throat, stomach and liver.
  • Alcohol makes it easier for harmful chemicals, such as tobacco smoke, to enter the tissues. This may explain why your risk of getting mouth and throat cancer is higher if you smoke and drink together.
  • Alcohol breaks down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde, which is known to damage cell DNA.
  • Alcohol reduces your body’s ability to absorb folate. Your cells need this vitamin to create new DNA.
  • Alcohol raises levels of hormones such as oestrogen in the body. Oestrogen stimulates cells to grow and multiply in the breast tissue. This may explain the effect alcohol has on risk of breast cancer in women.

Is going sober the answer?

Cutting down on alcohol can certainly reduce your risk of some cancers. How about going sober for a month to see how much better you feel? This could kick-start a new habit of not drinking as much as regularly.

Instead of going to the pub or having a drink at home, try going to the gym or doing another activity you enjoy. How about the cinema, going for a walk or cooking a new recipe at home for your family or friends to try? There are also great alcohol-free alternatives if you do end up meeting friends for a drink.

If you’re having difficulty cutting down your drinking, or think your drinking is affecting your day-to-day life, see your doctor. He or she will assess how much you drink, the reason why you drink and can offer you support and advice to cut down.

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