Alcohol and Cancer Risk
There is strong evidence that consumption of alcoholic drinks is a cause of cancers of the mouth, pharynx and larynx, oesophagus (squamous cell carcinoma), liver, colorectum, breast (pre- and postmenopause), and stomach.
There is also strong evidence that consumption of alcoholic drinks helps protect against kidney cancer. However, this finding is far outweighed by the increased risk for other cancers.
The evidence shows that alcoholic drinks of all types have a similar impact on cancer risk. This Recommendation therefore covers all types of alcoholic drinks, whether beers, wines, spirits (liquors) or any other drinks, as well as other alcohol sources.
The important factor is the amount of alcohol (ethanol) consumed. Even small amounts of alcoholic drinks can increase the risk of several cancers. There is no threshold of alcohol consumption below which cancer risk does not increase, at least for some cancers (1).
Research shows that people who use both alcohol and tobacco have much greater risks of developing cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx (throat), larynx, and esophagus than people who use either alcohol or tobacco alone. In fact, for oral and pharyngeal cancers, the risks associated with using both alcohol and tobacco are multiplicative; that is, they are greater than would be expected from adding the individual risks associated with alcohol and tobacco together (2).
Besides increasing your risk of developing cancer, drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can take a serious toll on your health. Here’s how alcohol can affect your body:
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:
- Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
- Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:
- Steatosis, or fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk (3).
If you do choose to drink, moderate drinking is defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men (4). If consumed at all, alcohol intake should be limited to this amount (5).
Certain people should avoid alcohol completely, including those who:
- Plan to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
- Take medications that interact with alcohol
- Have a medical condition that alcohol can aggravate
- Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant (4)
- This material has been reproduced from the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report 2018. Available at dietandcancerreport.org