We have a vague idea that drinking alcohol is bad for our health, but most of us do not take that knowledge seriously. In fact, most of us think that a few drinks here and there are actually good for our health. Almost everyone drinks. Only about 12 percent of men and 22 percent of women in America never drink alcohol. But, the latest research conducted by researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health found that alcohol is one of the most important preventable contributor to deaths from cancer and there is no safe amount. Alcohol can cause cancer even in smallest quantities.
Alcohol and cancer
The findings from Boston researchers will come as a surprise to most people, as the link between cancer and alcohol is not well known. As a consequence, reducing the consumption of alcohol is rarely used as cancer prevention strategy.
It is strange that the link between alcohol and cancer is so under-emphasized, since a number of earlier studies show that alcohol consumption greatly increases our risk of developing cancers of liver, throat, mouth and esophagus. In 1993, National Institute of Health issued an Alcohol Alert warning of the increased risk of cancer for heavy drinkers. Some recent studies also show the link between alcohol and cancers of rectum, colon and breast. Only about four percent – 20,000 cancer deaths annually – of total cancer deaths are alcohol-related, but this number is not so small when we look at this one cause of cancer as completely preventable and under our control.
How it works
The nature of the link between alcohol and cancer is not the same for different types of cancer. In some cases, such as with cancers of esophagus and mouth, alcohol is the direct cause of cancer. For liver and breast cancer, for example, the alcohol plays an enhancing mechanism to other causes.
- Some studies show that alcohol causes cancer by affecting oncogenes, genes with the potential to cause cancer. Alcohol consumption may cause overexpression of some oncogenes in cells, triggering cancer promotion.
- While not a direct carcinogen, alcohol can be considered a cocarcinogen. It means that it can boost or support carcinogenic properties of other chemicals. For example, National Cancer Institute study shows that alcohol enhances smokers” ™ risk for esophageal, mouth and tracheal cancer 35 times.
- Chronic alcoholism negatively affects how our body absorbs and uses nutrients, and consequently increases risk of some cancers. For example, a 1990 study shows that alcohol reduces levels of zinc, iron, vitamin E, and some B vitamins, increasing the risk for some cancers. In addition, research shows that chronic abuse of alcohol reduces levels of vitamin A, which is hypothesized to have potential anticancer properties
- Alcohol abuse also counteracts all the goods we get from a healthy diet rich in folic acid, which is believed to decrease our risk of colon cancer.
- Alcohol abuse has been linked with lowering of our immune system. Suppressed immune system of alcoholics makes them more vulnerable to a number of infectious diseases, which may lead to cancer.
No amount of alcohol is safe
Boston University researchers found that cancer deaths related to alcohol account for more than 18 years of potential lost life. They warn that, although higher alcohol consumption means higher cancer risk, their research shows that 30 percent of all alcohol-related cancer deaths are caused by only one and half glasses of alcohol per day. You can see if alcohol abuse is an issue with our self-check.
These findings contradict common belief, supported by some studies, that moderate consumption of alcohol is good for our health, particularly for cardio-vascular health. But, the same studies warn that it does not mean that drinking alcohol should be recommended to people in general and call moderate drinking ‘a slippery slope.’
Is there any benefit of alcohol?
While there is some support to moderate consumption of alcohol (one glass for women and two glasses for men, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans ), it does not mean that we should all drink. Most medical professionals say that potential benefits of moderate drinking are dependent on a range of factors, such as age, general health, other health issues, lifestyle, nutrition, history of alcoholism, and many others. Regular drinking of a small amount of alcohol is considered less damaging to health than binge drinking. In many cultures, drinking wine with meals is common, with no negative health effects. But, the same practice for people who are not used to it would turn them into alcoholics. Even doctors who recommend occasional glass or wine to their patients warn that drinking alcohol for older people has no any potential benefits.
According to the Medline plus, moderate amount of alcohol can:
- Increase the “good” cholesterol
- Lower the danger of forming clots
- Decrease inflammation
- Boost antioxidant activity (especially red wine, which is rich in flavonoids)
There are many other, much safer ways of keeping our heart health on track, without risking any of the diseases linked to alcohol consumption, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure, dementia, cancers and all-cause mortality. And not to mention other risks, such as accidents, violence and unsafe sexual behavior. But, since no scare of cancer or other diseases will ever prevent majority of people from enjoying an occasional drink, knowing that small amount should go a long way should at least keep most people from sliding that “slippery slope.” You can get a good estimate of your blood alcohol levels with our BAC calculator.