Alcohol Cancer Risk: How Much Is Too Much?

Among one of the most preventable risk factors for cancer, alcohol consumption accounts for about 6% of all cancers in the United States. It also accounts for 4% of all cancer deaths in the US, the third-largest contributor to overall cancer deaths. The type of alcohol—wine, beer, or liquor—does not matter. The only way to reduce the risk of cancer from alcohol consumption is to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. 

The reality is that the overall health effects of alcohol can vary from one individual to the next. The amount of alcohol that is consumed can also play a critical role. Despite these grim statistics and countless studies, very few people know about the alcohol cancer risk connection.

alcohol cancer risk
alcohol cancer risk

Cancers Linked to Alcohol Use

Like tobacco and obesity, alcohol consumption is one of the few preventable substances consistently linked to an increased risk of cancer. All types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor, are linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your alcohol cancer risk.

When you drink alcohol, your body breaks it down the ethanol alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde damages your DNA and prevents your body from repairing the damage. DNA is the cell’s “instruction manual” that controls a cell’s normal growth and function. When DNA is damaged, a cell can begin growing out of control and create a cancer tumor. 

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing these types of cancer:

  • Mouth 
  • Throat 
  • Voice Box
  • Esophagus
  • Liver
  • Colon
  • Breast
  • Kidney

Cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus:

Alcohol use clearly raises the risk of these cancers, and drinking and smoking together can raise the risk of cancer even more. Smoking causes damage on a cellular level, and alcohol may also limit how these cells repair damage to their DNA by tobacco chemicals. 

Liver Cancer: 

Regular, heavy alcohol use can cause damage, cirrhosis of the liver and leading to inflammation and scarring. These detrimental effects of alcohol consumption may be why it raises the risk of liver cancer.

Breast Cancer: 

Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.

How Does Alcohol Cause Cancer?

Alcohol cancer risk isn’t completely understood. In fact, there are likely several different ways it can raise risk, and this might depend on the type of cancer.

The Breakdown

 Like most things you eat or drink, alcohol – be it in a pint, shot or cocktail – gets broken down by your cells. This is a relatively straightforward process, and one that evolution has equipped our bodies to handle with ease. So where’s the harm in having a drink or two? 

As the body works to break down the alcohol consumed, it goes through a step where it is converted to a highly reactive, toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. 

At a normal pace, the body is capable of breaking down the acetaldehyde before any real damage can occur. However,  the more you drink the faster the body needs to react to the breakdown process. 

The problem is the breakdown process doesn’t kick into high gear simply because more alcohol is consumed. So a backup of acetaldehyde occurs, and this is when damage can occur on a cellular level. 

Effect on Absorption of Nutrients

Not only is alcohol devoid of proteins, minerals, and vitamins, it actually inhibits the absorption and usage of vital nutrients such as thiamin (vitamin B1), vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc.

Alcohol inhibits the natural breakdown of nutrients in several ways:

  • Decreasing secretion of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
  • Impairing nutrient absorption by damaging the cells lining the stomach and intestines.
  • Disabling transport of some nutrients into the blood.
  • Preventing those nutrients that are absorbed from being fully utilized by altering their transport, storage, and excretion.
  • Alcohol also interferes with the body’s microbiome.

Alcohol’s toxic effect on the gastrointestinal tract also promotes poor nutrition by irritating the gut wall, leading to inflammation and ulceration. This can result in poor absorption of nutrients and issues within the gastrointestinal tract.

Alcoholic beverages may also contain a variety of carcinogenic contaminants that are introduced during fermentation and production, such as nitrosamines, asbestos fibers, phenols, and hydrocarbons.

The Combination of Tobacco and Alcohol Cancer Risk

Epidemiologic research shows that people who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risks of developing cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), larynx, and esophagus than people who use either alcohol or tobacco alone. 

In fact, for oral and pharyngeal cancers, the risks associated with using both alcohol and tobacco are multiplicative; that is, they are greater than would be expected from adding the individual risks associated with alcohol and tobacco together 

Some Recommendations for Alcohol Use

There is no proven way to completely prevent cancer. However, there are steps you can take to lower your alcohol-related risk. 

  • Limit the number of alcoholic beverages you drink. You may choose to stop drinking alcohol completely. But if you plan to continue drinking, try to have two or fewer alcoholic drinks per week.
  • All alcohol contains ethanol and ethanol is the cancer-causing compound. The extent to which alcoholic drinks are a cause of various cancers depends on the amount and frequency of alcohol consumed.
  • Do not make an exception for red wine. There is no clear evidence that drinking red wine helps to prevent cancer. The current recommended limits also apply to red wine.  
  • If you’re not sure if you can go to an event and not have a drink, keep your health in mind. Remember that you’re keeping your risk of cancers as low as possible.
  • It’s safest not to drink if you are on any medication, including cancer treatment. If you’re taking prescription medicine, ask your doctor if it’s safe before drinking alcohol. 
  • Avoid using both alcohol and tobacco products. Especially together. The combination further increases the risks of developing certain cancers. These include cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus.

How Is Alcohol Use Defined?

There is something simple one can do to prevent cancer, and that is to limit the alcohol consumption. But what does that mean exactly? How is alcohol use defined so one can properly abide by limits? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention alcohol use is defined by these parameters. 

Moderate alcohol use is defined as consuming up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

Excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, any alcohol use by individuals under the age of 21 years (minimum legal drinking age), and any alcohol use by pregnant women.

  • Binge drinking is a pattern of alcohol use that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08% or more. This is usually defined as consuming four drinks or more for women and five drinks or more for men on a single occasion, generally within about two hours.
  • Heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight drinks or more per week for women and 15 drinks or more per week for men.

How Do Genes Affect Alcohol Cancer Risk?

A person’s risk of alcohol-related cancers is influenced by their genes, specifically the genes that encode enzymes involved in metabolizing (breaking down) alcohol. As the body works to break down the alcohol consumed, it goes through a step where it is converted to a highly reactive, toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. 

Certain genetic conditions can cause the body to metabolize the breakdown even slower, causing a build-up of toxic acetaldehyde. This allows it the time to wreak havoc throughout the body and will change the structure of DNA on a cellular level. This is how cancer forms from alcohol consumption. 

So How Much Is Too Much? 

The bottom line is that regularly drinking alcohol can harm your health, even if you don’t binge drink or get drunk. All types of alcohol count. For many people, drinking is social. But cutting back on alcohol doesn’t mean cutting back on seeing your friends and family. Keep your health in mind. Remember that you’re keeping your risk of breast and other cancers as low as possible. 

Before reading this you may not have realized the dangers of cancer from tipping back wine, beer, or cocktails. In fact, 7 out of 10 Americans are unaware of the link. Knowledge is power. And if you have any further questions regarding the alcohol cancer risk, please reach out to Harmony Ridge Recovery Center. Our professional team is here to help you fully understand your options that lead to your best life. 

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