Every year in Ireland, 900 people are diagnosed with alcohol-related cancers and around 500 of them die as a result. The amount of alcohol per person that we drink in Ireland is above the European average.
Cancers that are linked to alcohol consumption include:
- Oesophageal (food pipe)
The less you drink the lower the risk
The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of getting bowel cancer and many other cancers and diseases. No type of alcohol is better or worse than another, it is the alcohol itself that leads to the damage, no matter whether it is in wine, beer or spirits.
Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink more alcohol than others.
Don’t drink to excess
- If you drink alcohol of any type, limit your intake.
- Not drinking alcohol is better for cancer prevention.
Know your limits: Alcohol guidelines
To reduce your risk of cancer, and to keep healthy risks to a minimum, women should drink no more than 11 standard drinks a week. Men should drink no more than 17 standard drinks a week.
Be aware of how many standard drinks are in your favourite drink. For example, there are two standard drinks in a pint.
These guidelines are intended for adults only. When considering these guidelines, it is important to remember that drinks should be spaced out over the week and should never be saved up to drink in one session. The HSE recommends that you aim for at least two alcohol-free days every week.
And remember these drink guidelines are a limit not a target.
When it comes to alcohol and cancer, less is better. None is best.
What is a standard drink?
One standard drink of alcohol is:
- A half pint of beer, lager or stout
- One small glass of wine (100ml)
- One measure of spirits.
As a rough guide, a standard drink contains about 10-12 grams of pure alcohol. However, some restaurants and bars serve larger drinks than the standard. Also, there are differences in the size and strength of a standard drink across European countries.
You should avoid alcohol:
- During pregnancy
- While breast-feeding
- When trying for a baby.
Any alcohol increases the cancer risk
Even low-level drinking (meaning around a drink a day on average) increases the risk of breast, mouth, throat and oesophageal cancers a small amount. And the more you drink, the higher the risk of these and other cancers.
There’s no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol when it comes to cancer, but the risk is smaller for people who drink within the guidelines.
A pint of lager or a large glass of wine both contain about 2 standard drinks of alcohol. If you regularly drink this amount every day it can increase your risk of cancer of the:
- Oesophageal (food pipe)
Alcohol is more likely to cause head and neck cancer than breast cancer. However, because breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, and because so many women drink small amounts of alcohol regularly, a large number of women could be affected. In addition, there is a strong link between inherited breasts cancers and alcohol. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you may want to consider drinking well beneath the recommended guidelines or giving up alcohol completely to help minimise your risk.
Why does alcohol increase your risk of cancer?
There are several reasons why drinking alcohol causes cancer. It is likely that different cancers are caused in different ways.
- Ethanol and acetaldehyde
Alcohol (ethanol) is converted in our bodies into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Both ethanol and acetaldehyde are cancer-causing substances.
- Liver cirrhosis
Alcohol damages the cells of the liver and can cause a disease called liver cirrhosis, making you more likely to develop liver cancer.
Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen. High levels of oestrogen increase the risk of breast cancer.
What if I drink alcohol and smoke tobacco?
The combination of smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol is particularly dangerous and seriously increases the chance that you will get cancer.
This is because drinking alcohol makes it easier for the tissues of your mouth and throat to absorb the carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals contained in tobacco smoke. This is one reason why people who drink and smoke damage more tissue in their body than those who don’t. They put themselves at especially high risks of:
- Cancers of the mouth and throat (upper respiratory tract)
- Gullet (oesophagus).
What about folate?
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. Some studies have found that some cancers are more common in people with low folate levels.
But at the moment it isn’t clear if alcohol does cause cancer in this way, or whether the amount of folate people get in their diet affects the risk from alcohol.
How else can alcohol damage DNA?
Alcohol can cause highly reactive molecules, called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), to be produced in our cells. These molecules can damage the DNA, which could cause cancer to develop.
Can I reduce my risk of cancer if I stop drinking alcohol?
If you give up, or significantly cut down on drinking alcohol, after several years you will reduce your risk of cancer. You may not get rid of the risk completely – this depends on how much you have drunk throughout your life.
But remember smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol is the worst combination for your health. To reduce your risk of cancer you should both stop smoking and stop drinking alcohol.
What is worse, heavy drinking every so often or moderate drinking every day?
If you regularly drink more than the recommended amount of drinks per week (11 standard drinks for a woman, 17 standard drinks for a man) you may suffer acute health consequences or long-term damage to your health and increase the risk of cancer.
Episodic heavy drinking of more than 5-6 alcoholic drinks for men or more than 4-5 alcoholic drinks for women on one occasion is called ‘binge drinking’. Ireland is one of the countries where binge drinking is on the increase. This is especially true for young men and it has major bad effects on health.
Binge drinking may be even worse for your risk of cancer than regular drinking. However, it is very important to remember that your risk of developing cancer increases with the amount of alcohol you drink and for how long you have been drinking.
Is drinking small amounts of alcohol good for my heart?
The effect that drinking alcohol has on your heart depends on how much and how often you drink.
Drinking more than one drink per day for women or more than two drinks per day for men increases the risks of:
- Heart failure
- Coronary heart disease (CHD).
The more you drink, the higher the risk
Some studies show that people at high risk of heart disease, especially middle-aged men, who drink limited amounts of alcohol, have a slightly lower risk of coronary heart disease compared with people who don’t drink at all. The amounts of alcohol in these cases is less than one drink a day for women and less than two drinks a day for men.
However, it is not clear whether the alcoholic drinks themselves cause these effects. Other factors reduce the risk of heart disease more effectively, including:
- A healthy diet
- Physical activity
- Not smoking
- Maintaining a healthy body weight.
Non-drinkers should not start drinking to help reduce heart disease risk.
Drinking during pregnancy
Some studies have found that the children of women who drank alcohol during pregnancy had an increased risk of one type of leukaemia. It is not yet possible to say for sure whether there is a real link, more studies involving larger numbers of people are needed to investigate.