Alcohol Consumption And Cancer: A Causal Relationship
Author: Hannah Zwemer | Published:
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Studies Show A Correlation Between Alcohol Use And Increased Risk For Cancer
Life is stressful these days and for many, that means an increased desire to grab the bottle of “liquid courage” and down it in one gulp. Before drowning your stresses and sorrows though, be aware of the health risks. There is substantial research that illustrates a connection between alcohol consumption and an increased risk for various types of cancer.
Can Alcohol Really Cause Cancer?
In a recent study, researchers found that at least 4% of the world’s newly diagnosed cases of esophageal, mouth, larynx (voice-box), colon, rectum, liver, and breast cancers diagnosed in 2020 can be attributed to drinking alcohol. That percentage correlates to 741,300 people worldwide, with men accounting for three quarters of the total.
While the cancers listed above are already frightening, they are not the only disease associated with drinking alcohol. Liver cancer has been tied to heavy alcohol consumption and there is evidence that alcohol also increases one’s risk of developing melanoma (skin cancer), and cancer of the prostate and pancreas.
What Is Alcohol And How Does It Affect Our Bodies On The Cellular Level?
Alcohol, by definition and process, is the fermentation of sugars found in various foods (such as grapes, barley, or apples) into a compound called ethanol. When we drink alcohol—any type of alcohol, from red, white, and rosé wines to cocktails and craft beer—our bodies digest and metabolize that ethanol and convert it to acetaldehyde (through an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase or ADH), a toxic substance that is then further broken down to acetate; a compound more easily metabolized.
Acetaldehyde damages DNA, the material referred to as “the instruction manual for the cells.” Thus, when it is harmed, cells are unable to repair damage and may grow out of control and create cancerous tumors. Genetics play a role in the alcohol-cancer correlation, as some people carry variation in the genes responsible for breaking down and processing ethanol that leads to an accumulation of acetaldehyde. A buildup of such toxic material is more difficult to breakdown and results in physical side effects such as facial flushing or heart palpitations.
Metabolizing alcohol impairs the body’s ability to break down and absorb various essential nutrients such as:
- Vitamins A, C, D, E
- Folate: an element found in the vitamin B complex that aides in creation of red blood cells.
- Carotenoids: an antioxidant and type of provitamin found in many fruits and vegetables.
What If I Smoke, Too?
If coupled with tobacco use, one’s cancer risk increases substantially, specifically oral, pharynx, larynx, and esophageal cancers. While both substances already raise a risk, epidemiological research has shown that for oral and pharyngeal cancers specifically, tobacco and alcohol consumption together pose a higher threat than each substance used alone.
What Happens To The Risk If I Stop Drinking?
One might assume that ceasing to drink would immediately and automatically decrease the danger of developing cancer. Unfortunately, however, this is not necessarily the case. At least in terms of cancers found in the head/neck region, there has not been a correlation between quitting and reduced risk. Eventually, the risk declines, but not noticeably when compared with non-drinkers. Research has shown that an ex-drinker has a higher risk of developing oral and pharyngeal cancers than a non-drinker even 16 years after stopping. So, while breaking a bad habit and refraining from excessive alcohol consumption is vital for longevity and health prosperity, the effects of the substance are long-lasting.
Alcohol in the short-term, impairs one’s ability to think clearly, operate a vehicle, and can severely impact mood, concentration, judgement, and coordination, but the long-term effects can be much more jarring. “Heavy drinking” is defined as the consumption of more than 14 beverages in a week for men and 7 for women and often leads to an alcohol addiction which is more challenging both physically and mentally to stop. Heavy drinkers who stop abruptly may experience physical withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
Drinking in such quantities is also cause for maladies like inflammation (hepatitis) and heavy scarring (cirrhosis) in the liver which can lead to liver failure.
Are There Easy Ways To Lower My Risk Of Cancer?
Cancer, like many other deadly diseases is not entirely preventable. However, there are ways in which you and your loved ones can decrease the risk:
- Limit alcohol intake (the average intake is no more than 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men).
- Don’t use tobacco and stay away from secondhand smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Prioritize physical activity.
- Eat a balanced and nutritious diet.
- Protect skin from sun’s rays and avoid tanning beds/artificial UV light.
Help For Alcohol Addiction
According to the American Cancer Society, it is best to refrain from alcohol in all quantities, but if you do decide to drink on occasion, be sure to pay notice to the nationally recommended guidelines. Keep in mind, outings and festivities don’t have to include alcohol at all: check out this list of ways to celebrate sans beverage.
If you have concerns about yourself or your loved ones and alcohol consumption, there are resources to help you. Contact a treatment provider today or reach out to your primary care physician; you are not alone. Just as addiction comes in many forms and faces, so does the road to recovery, you just have to find the courage and resilience to take the first step.
Author: Hannah Zwemer | Last Edited: May 16, 2022