New Year’s Eve is coming up and part of the fun is in drinking more than we should to welcome the New Year in. Although we have no wish to throw a wet blanket on your celebrations, the subject of alcohol and increased cancer risk is well worth discussing. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol is a known cause of cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx & larynx), esophagus, breast, liver & bowel.
Nobody is sure exactly how alcohol increases the likelihood of cancer forming, but there are some strong theories for how this could work. The alcohol in alcoholic drinks, ethanol, is broken down in the body to acetaldehyde, which has the ability to damage DNA & potentially cause cancer. It is also known that ethanol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients like folate, which may cause normal cell pathways in the body to be altered. Finally, alcohol is known to increase blood levels of the hormone estrogen, linked to the risk of breast cancer.
Alcohol may also indirectly increase cancer risk by causing weight gain. Alcohol is a source of empty calories, contributing to the ‘beer-belly’ phenomenon. One gram of alcohol provides 7 kilocalories of energy, making it the second most calorie-dense nutrient after fat, which provides 9 kilocalories of energy per gram. This could make it hard to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. We also know that alcohol can make you hungrier, leading to high-calorie munching at the end of the night. Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of nine types of cancer, so alcohol can also raise your cancer risk in this sense.
How much is too much?
There is actually no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol intake in relation to your risk of developing a number of cancers. The less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer. There is also no difference in risk depending on the type of drink, as it is alcohol itself that increases cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends total abstinence for cancer prevention. The American Cancer Society recommends that people who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women.
If you are undergoing cancer treatment & wish to drink, you should speak with your medical team. Drinking alcohol during cancer treatment can interfere with some chemotherapy treatments, as drugs and alcohol are both metabolized by the liver.
What about possible health benefits of drinking alcohol?
There have been some studies in the past that suggested drinking some alcohol may be good for heart health, as is typical in the Mediterranean; however recent reviews have concluded that any potential benefits only apply to women aged 55 and over who drink very little. As it stands, it is not recommended to consume alcohol for health benefits.
Luckily, there are many ‘virgin’ drinks you can enjoy which will provide you with all the refreshment of alcoholic beverages, without the increased cancer risk. Check out our Mocktail Menu for zingy recipes to try – you won’t miss your usual tipple at all!