Dr Aidin Rawshani

Alcohol and Cancer

Contents

Alcohol consumption and risk of cancer

Smoking and sun are two known risk factors for cancer, but alcoholic beverages can also contribute to an increased risk of cancer. Scientists have found that alcohol causes changes in the body that increase the risk of cancer. It is estimated that alcohol accounts for about 5% of new cancers and cancer-related deaths worldwide.

Every third person drinks alcohol. Some research studies have suggested a beneficial effect with drinking small amounts of alcohol, but recent research shows that there is no quantity of liquor, beer or wine that is good for your health. This is based on a global analysis that examined the relationship between alcohol consumption and various diseases in 2016. In 2016, alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women aged 15 to 49 years worldwide, corresponding to almost 1 out of 10 deaths. These deaths include alcohol-related cancer, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, self-injury, road accidents and other accidental injuries such as drowning and fires.

Countries with the highest mortality rate due to alcohol

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Russia
  4. USA
  5. Vietnam
  6. Ukraine
  7. Germany
  8. Mexico
  9. France

Not surprisingly because of their large populations, China, India and Russia led the world in total numbers of alcohol-related deaths in men and women. The study is a strong reminder of the real and potentially fatal health risks posed by too much alcohol and that even the lowest alcohol levels increase the risk of disease. The global study showed that about 2.4 billion people drink alcohol, most of them men.

Alcohol drinking and the risk of developing cancer

Cancer was the main cause of alcohol-related deaths in people aged about 50 years. In the age group 15-49 years, road accidents, self-injury and tuberculosis were the main causes of premature death around the world Various news articles have published reports suggesting that 1-2 drinks a day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. Alcohol, most likely, does not reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, but is associated with multiple health risks.

Even a drink a day can shorten your life expectancy

Epidemiologist Steven Bell from the University of Cambridge published a comprehensive study in the reputable journal The Lancet that showed a beneficial effect with low alcohol consumption, the study showed that the risk of myocardial infarction was lower. However, the conclusion in this study was not that one drink a day was healthy because alcohol use is still associated with reduced life expectancy. Previous studies have examined people who regularly consume alcohol, recent studies compare people who drink alcohol with people who do not consume any alcohol.

Is there evidence that alcohol use increases the risk of cancer?

There is a strong scientific consensus that the consumption of alcoholic beverages can cause several variants of cancer. The US Public Health Agency has written a major report on carcinogens (carcinogens) in alcoholic beverages. Research indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks, the higher the risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. Even those who drink 1 drink per day and have a modestly increased risk of certain cancers.

Alcohol Related Cancers

Head and neck cancer

Moderate to large alcohol consumption is associated with a high risk of certain cancers in the head and neck region. Studies show that those who drink moderately with alcohol have 1.8 times higher risk of cancer of the oral cavity. Those who drink a lot of alcohol have 5 times higher risk of cancer of the oral cavity and 2.6 times increased risk of cancer of the larynx. The research has observed a synergistic effect among those who drink alcohol and smoke, which leads to a significantly increased risk of cancer in the head and neck region.

Cancer of the esophagus (esophagus)

Consuming alcohol is associated with an increased risk of a cancer of the esophagus. The risk of cancer of the esophagus is 1.3 times higher for people who drink alcohol, compared to people who do not consume any alcohol. Those who drink moderate to a lot of alcohol have about 5 times increased risk of cancer of the esophagus, compared to people who do not drink any alcohol. Some people have a genetic mutation that results in low levels of a protein (enzyme) that breaks down alcohol, if these individuals consume very little alcohol they have a greatly increased risk of esophageal cancer.

Liver cancer

High alcohol consumption is associated with approximately 2 times increased risks of two different forms of liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma). Excessive alcohol is the main cause of severe liver disease (cirrhosis of the liver) resulting in scar tissue and inflammation of the liver. The liver is a powerful organ and the body’s best ability to heal itself (regenerate) but in case of cirrhosis of the liver, the damage is so severe that the liver cannot heal and regenerate. The constant inflammation and prolonged drinking of alcohol is probably the reason why patients with cirrhosis have a significantly increased risk of liver cancer.

Breast cancer

Population studies have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer in individuals with high alcohol intake. Merged data from 118 individual studies (meta-analysis) show that people who consume small amounts of alcohol have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer compared to people who do not drink alcohol. However, the risk increases for people who drink moderately with alcohol (1.23 times increased risk) and those who drink a lot of alcohol have a 1.6 times increased risk. A research study investigating two American patient groups consisting only of women showed that those who never smoked cigarettes but drank moderately with alcohol still have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Colon cancer (colorectal cancer)

Moderate to large alcohol consumption is associated with 1.5 times increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum (rectum cancer), compared to those who did not consume any alcohol. Several studies have investigated whether there is a link between alcohol consumption and the risk of other cancers. Most likely, alcohol is associated with an increased risk of skin cancer (melanoma). Alcohol increases the risk of pancreatic cancer (pancreatic cancer).

A study that included data from more than 1000 alcohol studies, as well as information on the cause of death from 195 countries from 1990 to 2016, concluded that the optimal number of alcoholic beverages per day to minimize the risk of cancer is 0 (Reference: GBD 2016 Alcohol Collaborators. Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016 systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet 2018).

Can red wine prevent some cancers?

In grapes there is a substance called resveratrol which has been investigated for many possible health effects. There are those who claim that this substance used to make red wine can prevent certain cancers. Research studies have shown that wine contributes to an increased risk of multiple cancers but moderate consumption of wine is not associated with increased risk of colon cancer (colorectal cancer).

When you stop drinking alcohol

The studies that have investigated whether the risk of cancer decreases when stopping drinking alcohol have focused on cancer of the esophagus and head/neck region. These studies have shown that those who stop consuming alcohol do not have an immediate risk reduction for cancer. The risk of cancer is gradually decreasing, but it may take several years for that risk to be normalized.

Epidemiological studies have shown that those who have drunk alcohol have an elevated risk of cancer of the oral cavity 16 years after they stopped drinking alcohol. One study estimates that it would take more than 35 years for the risk of normalizing throat cancer (larynx and larynx cancer), compared to those who never had alcohol.

How does alcohol harm the body?

Alcohol can easily get into your cells. It damages your genome (DNA) and affects various processes in your body. Alcohol is broken down into ethanol which is a compound believed to cause cancer. Alcohol causes inflammation associated with cancer, in addition, alcohol affects the hormones (estrogen) in women, which is likely to increase the risk of cancer. Alcohol also prevents the body from absorbing important vitamins and other nutrients (such as Folate and B vitamins) which eventually increase the risk of cancer.

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