Worldwide in 20161, it is estimated that on average one alcoholic drink is consumed per day (or 6.4L per year) in those older than 15 years. It is concerning to think that there is ample evidence to suggest that alcohol use is a preventable risk factor for cancer. And the statistics are troubling. In 2016, alcohol was responsible for about 376 200 cancer deaths.2 In a large study on almost 100 000 participants3, researchers found that heavy (2 – 3 drinks) and very heavy (3 or more drinks) alcohol drinkers had an increased risk of dying from cancer.
What is Alcohol?
Alcohol, also known as ethanol, is produced when sugars (from fruit or grains/cereals) are broken down by yeasts. This process is called fermentation and used to make alcoholic drinks like beer (3 – 7 % alcohol), wine (9 – 15 % alcohol), and spirits (35 – 50 % alcohol).
Alcohol contains energy: about 7 kcal per gram. It is also a drug, affecting both mental and physical responses. Blood alcohol reaches maximum levels about 30 – 60 minutes after consumption, with the body able to break down 10 – 15g of alcohol per hour.
How Much Alcohol Can I Drink?
Of course, some alcohol can still form part of a healthy and balanced diet. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans4 drinking alcohol in moderation is defined as 2 drinks or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women. One serving of alcohol is the same as 350 mL beer, 125 mL wine (red or white), or 45 mL of spirits.
It appears that the type of alcohol consumed does not appear to matter: the causal factor is the alcohol itself. All alcoholic drinks form ethanol which increases levels of acetaldehyde and in turn promote DNA damage.5
What is the Link with Cancer and Alcohol?
There is strong, convincing evidence6 that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx (voice box), oesophagus, liver, colon, and breast (in postmenopausal women). There is also evidence of a probable link to stomach cancer.
An important consideration: Alcohol consumption goes hand-in-hand with other things that increase cancer risks like eating large amounts of deep-fried foods, ultra-processed foods, junk food, loads of added sugar, processed meats, charred well-done meat and nitrates, nitrites and more additives in general. Late nite drinking is known to affect sleep quality, which increases risk. It’s often hard to exercise or be active the day after, this breaks good habits. Alcohol and fructose (generally from all the added sugars in drinks and foods) both get processed by your liver… which is a lot of strain on your liver all in one go. Try to limit the damage you do in one go. You can still have a good time without maxing out all the risks. A good place to start is to eliminate sugar-dangerous soft drinks as a mixer and to still eat quality foods while celebrating.
- World Health Organization (WHO). World Health Statistics Data Visualisations Dashboard. Harmful Use of Alcohol – Alcohol per Capita Consumption. 2017. Access 12 May 2021. Available from: https://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.sdg.3-5-viz?lang=en
- Rehm J et al. Does alcohol use affect cancer risk? Curr Nutr Rep. 2019;8:222-229.
- Kunzmann AT, Coleman HG, Huang W-Y, Berndt SI. The association of lifetime alcohol use with mortality and cancer risk in older adults: A cohort study. PLoS Med. 2018;15(6): e1002585. https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002585\
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2020 – 2025. Available from: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
- Klein WMP, Jacobsen PB, Helzlsouer KJ. Alcohol and Cancer Risk: Clinical and Research Implications. JAMA. 2020;323(1):23–24. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.19133
- Word Cancer Research Fund/ American Institute for Cancer Research Continuous Update Project Export Report 2018. Alcoholic drinks and the risk of cancer. Available at www.dietandcancerreport.org.