According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol has been linked to several types of cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx & larynx), esophagus, breast, liver, colon, and rectum. There are associations with pancreatic and lung cancers. There is no conclusive data that shows how alcohol influences cancer risk — and it could be different from one form of cancer to another — but there are strong theories for how this could work.
Our bodies cannot fully metabolize alcohol, meaning it cannot completely break it down and remove it from our bodies without causing harm. In the simplest sense, alcohol is poison. The best our body can do is to break the ethanol in alcoholic drinks, down to acetaldehyde, an intermediate step, and then remove it from our bodies.
It is also known that alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients like folate. Low folate status or a folate deficiency can lead to the inability of our body to repair damaged cells which over time can increase our risk for developing chronic diseases. Finally, alcohol is known to increase blood levels of the hormone estrogen, linked to the risk of breast cancer.
Alcohol is a source of empty calories. One gram of alcohol provides seven kilocalories of energy, making it the second most calorie-dense nutrient after fat, which provides nine kilocalories of energy per gram. Drinking alcohol could make it hard to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of nine types of cancer, and alcohol can complicate one’s ability to maintain a healthy body weight.
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 the alcohol itself is what increases cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends total abstinence for cancer prevention.
If you are undergoing cancer treatment and 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.
Luckily, there are many nonalcoholic drinks you can enjoy that offer all the refreshment of alcoholic beverages, without the increased cancer risk. Try this virgin Sangria or zingy Bermuda Triangle and you won’t miss your usual tipple at all.
Kate Ueland, MS, RD specializes in oncology nutrition, primarily working with breast, ovarian, renal, and melanoma cancer patients throughout all stages of the cancer journey at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) in Seattle, WA. As Cook for Your Life’s nutrition advisor and editor, Kate ensures all culinary content adheres to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and follows science-based guidelines.