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The link between excessive drinking and certain cancers

Epidemiologic research suggests that the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time, the higher his or her chances become of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. Cancers of the upper digestive tract have the strongest link to alcohol consumption, this includes the mouth, esophagus, pharynx and larynx (Stinson; DeBakey 1992).

Evidence shows an estimated 75 percent of esophageal cancers in the U.S. have been due to excessive alcohol consumption. Cancers of the liver, breast and colon show less consistent connections to the consumption of alcohol. (Stinson; DeBakey 1992) According to a meta-analysis of 53 epidemiologic studies conducted to find the link between excessive drinking and breast cancer, women who drank more than 45 grams of alcohol per day (three drinks) had 1.5 times the risk of developing breast cancer, compared to those who didn’t drink (Hamajima; Hirose; Tajima 2002).

Ethanol as a carcinogen

Wine, beer and liquors are comprised of a type of alcohol called ethanol (C2H5OH). Ethanol has been classified as a Group 1 human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Further studies have found that alcohol’s co-carcinogenic (promoting the effect of a carcinogen) could be caused by its interaction with certain enzymes in the human body. It’s believed that carcinogens can become more potent as they pass through the esophagus, lungs, intestines and liver as they encounter activated enzymes. The same enzymes that work to detox the body from toxic substances such as alcohol, can also have the opposite effect and increase the toxicity of certain carcinogens. A particular enzyme called cytochrome P-450 is able to be induced by ‘dietary alcohol’ in the liver, lungs, esophagus and intestines (Garro 1990).

Research on types, quantities and frequencies of alcoholic consumption

Research shows that the type of alcoholic beverage consumed doesn’t make a difference in cancer risks. Instead, it’s the frequency a person drinks as well as the quantity consumed. Higher alcohol concentrations per gram is usually associated with cancer risks; however, according to a study conducted by the University of Otago Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, a third of all alcohol related cancer deaths are attributed to drinking an average of two drinks a day or less for women. The same study held that 30 percent of alcohol attributable deaths were due to cancers, including breast and bowel cancer. This study concludes that there is no threshold for safe consumption of alcohol (WHO 2010).

Nutrition and diet during excessive alcohol consumption

Excessive drinkers take a severe risk of decreasing the nutritional value of their diets. Studies have found that as few as two drinks per day negates any beneficial effects of a “correct” diet on decreasing colon cancer (Giovannucci 1993). It’s very common for heavy drinkers to assume that a healthy diet and consumption of a lot of water will assist with outweighing the negative health risks of their drinking. This is simply not the case. Even if a person ate three meals a day consisting of meat, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, as well as took all the essential vitamins and got plenty of rest and exercise, all of these efforts would be no match for the damaging effects of alcohol on the body.

If you or a loved one would like more information on obtaining treatment for alcoholism or any other substance abuse issue, you can call the Recovery Helpline at 855-441-4405. We are available 24/7 to answer any of your questions relating to substance use disorders and finding treatment programs for addiction.

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