Even Light Drinking May Increase Cancer Risk

By Temma Ehrenfeld @Temmaehrenfeld
April 27, 2020

Backing up years of research, one study suggests that drinking any alcohol increases your risk for cancers of the colon, stomach, breast, prosate, and esophagus.

Alcohol is one of the major contributors to chronic disease. In fact, even having two drinks a day or fewer increases your risk for several forms of cancer.

Most people think drinking is okay unless you’re an alcoholic. Drinking within the guidelines is fine, right?

Maybe not. Backing up years of research, a giant study from Japan suggests that any drinking of alcohol upped the risk of cancer of the colon, stomach, breast, prostate, and esophagus.


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In wealthier countries around the world, cancer causes more than half of deaths among middle-aged people, compared to less than a quarter for heart disease. (That's good news, in a way, as heart disease rates have fallen with better prevention and care.)

Cancer deaths have fallen, too, by 26 percent in the United States between 1991 and 2015. One reason: The number of smokers has decreased, thanks to a wave of public education and restrictive new laws. But obesity is on the rise, and that will lead to more cancer cases. 

In 2018, the American Society of Clinical Oncology stated that more than 5 percent of new cancer cases were attributable to alcohol consumption. Within your body, an alcoholic drink breaks down into acetaldehyde, which damages your DNA. Your genes are a kind of instruction manual for your cells. With the instruction manual damaged, your cells can begin overproducing.

With breast and prostate cancer, alcohol might be changing levels of sex hormone levels.

The study was large, following more than 63,000 cancer cases and the same number of controls at several medical centers in Japan. People who downed 2 drinks a day or fewer had a 5 percent higher risk of any kind of cancer, compared to people who didn't drink at all. This elevated risk also applied to most gastrointestinal cancer, and breast and prostate cancer. For other cancers, the risk was slightly less; for esophageal cancer, it was more. 

Participants reported their drinking habits based on standard alcohol units for sake, beer, wine, and whisky.

Over the years, all types of alcoholic drinks, including red and white wine, beer, cocktails, and liquor, have been linked with cancer. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends women stick to a drink a day and men to two. You’ve gone on a binge if you consume five or more alcoholic drinks and you’re male, or four if you’re female, within a couple hours of each other.

You've probably heard that wine protects you against cancer and heart disease. There is some evidence of a protective effect for some cancers, but always with very moderate consumption and other parts of the body may be hurt.

And, of course, you should stay away from liquor if you will be driving or operating machinery or minding a child or elder. You can’t mix alcohol with a long list of ordinary medications, including over-the-counter remedies for allergies, colds and flu, pain, heartburn, and cough; prescriptions for high blood pressure, antibiotics, anti-anxiety drugs, nitroglycerin for angina, antidepressants, anti-seizure drugs, anti-nausea drugs, some arthritis medication, blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and sleep aids.

If you’re pregnant, the best idea is to avoid alcohol altogether. If you decide to go off that regime, stick to one drink on any occasion.

From a cancer prevention standpoint, drinking the least amount of alcohol possible is your best strategy.

The bottom line: If you're at risk for cancer because of a family history, previous cancer, or other factors, you may want to steer clear of alcohol.


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April 27, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell