How Does Alcohol Contribute to the Development of Cancer?


Drinking is linked to a long list of negative health effects, which number well over 200 if you’re keeping score at home. The more you drink, the greater the likelihood that you will get one or more of these conditions, which can vary from issues with digestion and infection to diseases of the liver or heart. Your genes, your family’s medical history, how much you weigh, and the way you live your life are all factors that can increase or decrease your risk of developing an illness or condition that is linked to alcohol consumption.

In general, the majority of medical professionals agree that reducing one’s alcohol consumption to moderate levels (no more than two drinks per day for males and no more than one drink per day for women) can assist in reducing the severity of the associated health concerns. However, there is at least one notable exception to this rule: cancer.

According to Keith Roach, MD, associate professor in clinical medicine in the division of general medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital, the safest course of action when it comes to preventing cancer is to abstain completely from alcohol consumption.

According to Dr. Roach, even moderate drinkers have a marginally elevated chance of developing certain cancers. “The damage from less than one drink a day is minor, but it’s not zero,” he says. “The damage from more than one drink a day is even worse.” Once you cross that barrier, the risk increases dramatically from there on out.

What the studies have found

In August of 2018, a group of researchers examined more than one thousand papers in order to evaluate the effects of alcohol use on the risk for 23 different health conditions, seven of which were forms of cancer. Even just one drink of alcohol per day can increase a person’s risk of developing malignancies of the breast, colon, esophageal, pharynx, and oral cavity, according to the findings of a thorough review that was just published in The Lancet. The researchers also discovered that the likelihood of developing these disorders is heightened with increasing alcohol intake.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the most effective way to reduce one’s risk of developing cancer is to abstain from drinking alcohol. The phrase “drinking of alcoholic beverages” can also be found on the list of known human carcinogens that is maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services of the United States.

Alcohol consumption was found to be the cause of an estimated 18,200 to 21,300 cancer deaths in the United States in 2009, which accounts for up to 3.7 percent of all cancer deaths in the country, according to a study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 and was based on data from 2009. When it comes to drinking and the possibility of developing cancer, the researchers came to the conclusion that there is “no safe threshold.”

Red wine is not an exception to this rule.

There is not a single alcoholic beverage that does not in some way contribute to the development of cancer. I’ll explain why.

The majority of the evidence that supports the hypothesis that alcohol and cancer are linked leads to a single offender that is present in all alcoholic beverages, ranging from champagne to whiskey: ethanol. Because of this, the contents of your glass are less important than the amount and frequency with which you consume liquid.

You are mistaken if you believe that the possible negative effects of alcohol could be mitigated by the presence of potentially helpful compounds like resveratrol in red wine.

Researchers have looked, but they have not been able to uncover a definitive link between drinking red wine in moderation and a reduced chance of developing cancer. According to Roach, it is not a prudent choice to drink for the sake of potential or unproven health advantages. This is due to the fact that the very real hazards linked with drinking increase with each alcoholic beverage that is consumed.

He claims that the findings about resveratrol have been very disheartening. However, if you drink one glass of grape juice every day, you will consume an adequate amount of resveratrol to satisfy your needs.

Why ethanol is so dangerous to drink

If you have a better understanding of what happens to alcohol once it’s already in your system, you’ll have a better understanding of these startling discoveries and figures.

When you start drinking, your body almost instantly starts metabolising the alcohol that you have consumed. As the ethanol in your beverage is metabolised, a potentially lethal byproduct known as acetaldehyde will be produced. In addition to causing damage to cells, acetaldehyde has the potential to alter DNA in a way that may ultimately result in cancer. Your body’s DNA directs how your cells divide and perform their functions. If this genetic information is corrupted, it could cause the proliferation of cells to go out of control and lead to the formation of tumours.

The liver, which is where the majority of alcohol metabolism takes place, is where the detrimental consequences of acetaldehyde are most readily apparent. However, it can also be seen in other sections of the body, such as the brain and other parts of the digestive tract, as well as the pancreas.

There may be further links between drinking alcohol and an increased risk of cancer, including the following:

  • It is possible that it will cause oxidation in the body, which can potentially cause DNA damage as well as damage to proteins and fats in the body.
  • It is possible that this will inhibit the body from properly absorbing necessary nutrients like vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as folate and carotenoids.
  • It is possible for it to raise oestrogen levels in the blood, which is a hormone that is associated to an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • The fermentation and production procedures that are used to create some alcoholic drinks may also result in the formation of certain carcinogenic pollutants. These contaminants include nitrosamines, asbestos fibres, phenols, and hydrocarbons, to name a few.

In the meantime, the additional calories that can be found in alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and mixed drinks might lead to weight gain. In addition, being overweight is a proven contributor to the development of various types of cancer.

Risks can add up

Roach warns that drinking alcohol, even just one drink, can impair a person’s ability to make decisions. “The second drink is a lot easier than the first drink, and then you might have much weaker judgement,” he says. “The first drink is a lot easier than the second drink.” “Not only are you likely to consume more alcohol, but you might also opt for foods that are less healthful. It is possible that you will be more likely to indulge in other dangerous habits.

For instance, you might feel the want to smoke more frequently, which is a double-edged sword in terms of the risk of developing cancer.

If you or a member of your family has a history of cancer, you are at an increased risk. If you have additional risk factors, particularly if one of those risk factors is smoking, then you are going to have an increased risk,” adds Roach.

Alcohol is an irritant that can damage cells throughout the body, but particularly in the mouth and throat. Roach notes that the alcohol causes “direct injury to the lining of the oesophagus,” which is what causes the condition.

Because of this, hazardous compounds present in cigarette smoke may have an easier time entering cells. Drinking alcohol may also make it more difficult for your body to eliminate the harmful chemicals that are found in cigarette smoke and for your cells to repair the DNA damage that is caused by these chemicals.

According to Roach, the severity of the harm increases in proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed.

In the United States, a single drink contains around 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol. This is similar to the amount of alcohol found in 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor, such as gin or vodka, served as a shot. However, even beverages of the same type might have very different amounts of alcohol. For instance, the amount of alcohol included in beer can range anywhere from approximately 5 to 9 percent, the amount of alcohol contained in wine can range anywhere from about 12 to 17 percent, and the amount of alcohol contained in liquor can range anywhere from about 40 to 60 percent.

The factors of your size and sex are also important. According to Roach, the effects of alcohol on a person who weighs 110 pounds are likely to be different than the effects of alcohol on a person who weighs 170 pounds. According to him, “women often have smaller body sizes, and as a result, a larger quantity of alcohol can be found in the blood relative to the amount that has been drunk.”

According to Roach, women’s livers have a lower concentration of the enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which is responsible for the breakdown of alcohol. According to research, the ADH in men’s livers is likewise more active than in the livers of women. The stomachs of males also contain more ADH than the stomachs of women, which enables men to eliminate a greater quantity of alcohol before it enters the bloodstream.

Rethinking your drinking

Even if you stopped drinking cold turkey tomorrow, there is a chance that your risk of developing cancer will not immediately return to where it was before you started drinking.

It takes some time for your risk of cancer to recover to what it was before you quit drinking, according to the findings of studies that investigated the effects of abstinence on cancer risk. These studies largely focused on malignancies of the head, neck, and oesophagus.

“It is a process that takes some time. That is true for everything that takes place within the body, as Roach points out. However, in many instances, he notes that the body is able to reverse a significant portion of the harm that is caused by alcohol consumption.

Is it time to quit drinking “cold turkey” if you’re someone who drinks in moderation? Unfortuitously, there is no universally applicable response to this issue that can be given.

It is highly recommended that you do not begin drinking if you do not currently do so. There is no safe limit when it comes to drinking alcohol. In addition, the hazards increase in proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. Sharecare allows you to monitor how much alcohol you consume

Your age, medical history, genetics, weight, lifestyle, and any other individual risk factors for cancer or other health issues determine whether or not it is okay for you to drink moderately on occasion or never at all. However, whether or not it is okay for you to drink at all depends really on you.

Given the potential dangers to one’s health, it’s difficult to make the case for even light or moderate drinking. But within these limitations, the absolute risk for cancer is low, and Roach believes that some individuals may simply enjoy life more if they have an occasional glass of wine since it allows them to relax and unwind. It is essential to balance the preferences you have for yourself with the dangers that are present. Talk to your physician about the options that are available to you given your circumstances.

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