Increased cancer risk and alcohol

The facts about increased cancer risk and alcohol 

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, and as a result, we are more susceptible to developing an alcohol related cancer at some point in our lives. 

New advice states that to reduce your risk of cancer, you should not drink alcohol.

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. 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:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Oesophageal (food pipe)
  • Breast
  • Bowel.

There is a strong link between inherited breast 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.


Reasons for increased cancer risk:

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.

  • Hormones

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones, such as oestrogen. High levels of oestrogen increase the risk of breast cancer.


Alcohol and 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).

Impact on 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.


Damaged 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.


Heavy drinking sporadically vs. moderate drinking every day:

It is best not to drink alcohol at all. 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.


Impact on heart health:

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:

  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD).

Results:

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.

For more information on how alcohol affects your health and tips on how you can reduce your risk of cancer by reducing the amount you drink, visit the HSE website.


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