Over the long term, drinking alcohol increases your risk of serious illnesses, such as mouth, throat and breast cancer1. Of course, not everyone who drinks will get cancer. But scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink alcohol than those who don’t.

Alcohol can cause at least seven types of cancer

  • Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of Bowel cancer2
  • Breast cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer (voice box)
  • Liver cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat).

One study has estimated that around 4% of all cancers are due to alcohol consumption3.

Heavy drinking can cause cirrhosis of the liver (where damage to the liver causes scar tissues to build up) which can then lead to cancer.

Find out more about how alcohol can cause liver disease.

Drinking + smoking = greater risk of cancer

Throw cigarettes into the mix when you’re drinking and you increase the risk of damage caused to your body’s cells.

Smoking and drinking together increases your risk of developing throat and mouth cancer more than doing either on their own. A recent review of studies looked at how often oral and upper throat cancers happen in those who drink and smoke. It found that those who drank but had never smoked were around a third more likely to develop oral or upper throat cancer compared with non-drinkers. However, of those people who currently smoke or used to smoke the risk was almost three times higher compared with non-drinkers who have never smoked4.

All types of alcohol increase the risk of cancer

Heavy drinking also causes: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis and, of course, injuries.

In the past there has been debate about low-levels of certain alcohol being good for us, such as 'is red wine good for heart?' However, the most recent research has found that any protective effect of alcohol is ultimately out-weighed by the associated health risk. The small protective effect that can be found at very low drinking levels is limited to women aged 55 and over.

In any case, it has never been though that alcohol has any protective benefits against cancer. It’s the alcohol molecule itself that does the damage to our bodies and increases our risk of diseases such as cancer. It doesn’t matter what form alcohol comes in: beer, spirits or wine - they all put our long-term health at risk.

The more you drink, the greater your risk of developing cancer

The Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) alcohol unit guidelines advises that people should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week to keep health risks from alcohol low. If you do choose to drink, it is best to spread your drinks evenly throughout the week. If you wish to cut down the amount you are drinking, a good way to do this is to have several drink-free days per week.

Recent studies have shown that even small amounts of alcohol can moderately increase the risk of bowel cancer. An ongoing study of 500,000 people in 10 European countries has found that for every two units drunk a day, your risk of bowel cancer goes up by 8%5.

A few theories on why alcohol can cause cancer

Scientists have not identified any single mechanism that explains exactly why alcohol increases the risk of developing cancer. However they have identified a number of factors that are likely to play a role7

Acetaldehyde

When you drink, the alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This can damage your DNA (the genetic material that makes up our genes) and stop your cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer.

Oestrogen and other hormones

Alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the blood, such as oestrogen, which is linked to breast cancer.

Folate and other nutrients

Alcohol drinkers tend to have lower levels of folate, an important vitamin that helps our cells produce new DNA correctly. Some studies have found that cancer is more common in people with low levels of folate in their blood8.

Need some help? Get tips on how to cut down

If you want to stay healthy, you need to exercise and eat well too

Along with cutting down on the amount you drink, eating well and exercising are key to staying healthy. Eating at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables can have a protective effect against cancer, especially mouth, throat, stomach and lung cancers.

Just 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, five days a week, can have a positive effect on your health. As well as being good for your heart, research has shown that it can also reduce the risk of developing breast, bowel or womb cancer. Keeping active could help to prevent more than 3,400 cases of cancer every year in the UK6.

Staying in control of your drinking

You can keep your risk low by staying within the government’s recommended low risk guidance. Here are three ways you can cut back:

  1. Keep track of what you’re drinking.Think you might be drinking too much? The free Drinkaware app can tell you. It can even help you cut down.
  2. Know your strength.Alcoholic drinks labels will have the abbreviation “ABV” which stands for Alcohol By Volume, or sometimes just the word “vol”. It shows the percentage of your drink that’s pure alcohol. This can vary a lot. For example, some ales are 3.5%, some stronger lagers can be as much as 6% ABV. This means that just one pint of strong lager can be more than three units of alcohol, so you need to keep your eye on what you’re drinking.
  3. Have several drink-free days a week. If you want to cut down, a great way is to have several drink-free days a week. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.

Further information

Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.

For advice on cancer-related issues, visit Cancer Help UK – www.cancerhelp.org.uk – the patient information website of Cancer Research UK. Their helpline operates 9am–5pm, Monday–Friday. Call freephone 0808 800 4040.

 

References

(1) V. Bagnardi, M. Rota, E. Botteri, I. Tramacere, F. Islami, V. Fedirko, L. Scotti, M. Jenab, F. Turati, E. Pasquali, C. Pelucchi, R. Bellocco, E. Negri, G. Corrao, J. Rehm, P. Boffetta, and C. La Vecchia
Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis Ann Oncol mds337 first published online August 21, 2012 doi:10.1093/annonc/mds337
(2) Parkin, D. M., Boyd, L. & Walker, L. C. (2011). 16. The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010: Summary and conclusions. British Journal of Cancer, 105, S77-S81. Last reviewed: 23/02/2015 Available at:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252065/
(3) Parkin, D. M. (2011). 3. Cancers attributable to consumption of alcohol in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer, 105, S14-S18. Available at:
http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/v105/n2s/abs/bjc2011476a.html
(4) Ferrari et al 2007, ‘Lifetime and baseline alcohol intake and risk of colon and rectal cancers in the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition (EPIC)’, International Journal of Cancer, vol. 121, issue 9, pp. 2065-2072. Available at:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.22966/pdf
(5) Turati, F., Garavello, W., Tramacere, I., Pelucchi, C., Galeone, C., Bagnardi, V., Corrao, G., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Boffetta, P., La Vecchia, C. & Negri, E. (2013). A Meta-analysis of Alcohol Drinking and Oral and Pharyngeal Cancers: Results from Subgroup Analyses. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 48, 107-118. Last reviewed 23/02/2016
Available at: http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/content/48/1/107.long
(6) Cancer Research UK website. How physical activity prevents cancer. The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 24/3/15. Available at:
http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/physical-activity-and-cancer/how-physical-activity-prevents-cancer
(7) Cancer Research UK website. How alcohol causes cancer The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 23/3/15 Available at:

http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/healthyliving/alcohol/howdoesalcoholcausecancer/how-does-alcohol-cause-cancer
(8) Duthie SJ. Folic acid deficiency and cancer: mechanisms of DNA instability. Br Med Bull 1999;55:578–92.