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Alcohol Can Increase the Risk of Breast Cancer

The general consensus is that alcohol when consumed in moderate amounts is, on the whole, beneficial to our health, especially our heart and circulatory system. To attest to this statement, the US Centre for Disease Control has listed moderate consumption of alcohol as one of four healthy lifestyle behaviours, alongside non-smoking, healthy diet and physical activity, that have a beneficial effect on reducing premature mortality. Benefits of wine drinking span across a wide spectrum of health-promoting effects and, besides heart health, are being linked to significant reductions in the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and gallstones.

Sadly, there has always being a darker side to the alcohol consumption, which amongst other things, is the increased risk of cancer. While it is most harmful when drank in amounts above recommended intakes, a recent comprehensive review of 222 academic papers has revealed that light alcohol consumption, defined as one drink or less daily, is associated with an enlarged risk of esophageal, oropharyngeal and breast cancer. The esophageal and oropharyngeal cancer link is not too surprising. These are sites that come in direct contact with alcohol and its metabolites while one of them happens to be acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde, produced by our salivary bacteria, is thought to be the major carcinogen from alcohol consumption. When acetaldehyde is exposed to the mucosa of the upper digestive tract, it causes hyper proliferation. Hence, it is easy to understand why alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer of these organs, even from the small quantities studied, when the tissues are directly exposed to the carcinogen metabolites before the body gets a chance to dilute and detoxify them. As a result of this, the extent of risk increase is relatively large: 30% and 17% for esophageal and oropharyngeal cancer, respectively. Incidentally, this is the very reason why people are advised to use alcohol free mouthwashes.

When it comes to alcohol and breast cancer link, it is likely to be a result of effects on hormonal signalling (increased oestrogen and insulin-like growth factor 1). The observed risk increase from 100 eligible studies was 4%. Surely, it is not a big increase and nowhere near the 40-50% heightened risk formerly reported for heavy drinkers. Nonetheless, if you consider how widespread breast cancer is – in the UK alone 55,000 women are diagnosed each year – and how common it is to have a drink or less a night, then we can realize that a seemingly irrelevant 4% increase can have a significant impact on increasing the overall breast cancer burden.

It seems likely that no amount of alcohol is risk free. Although benefits from light alcohol consumption can be observed in many conditions, they are countered by the compelling evidence of an increased cancer risk – an adverse effect not seen from other healthy lifestyle behaviours such as healthy diet or exercise. It is up to every individual, especially women, to examine their own circumstances i.e. family history of cancer versus those conditions health benefits are found in. However, given these new findings and no matter how positive its other potential health benefits can be, advocating alcohol, including red wine, as a health promoting practice seems no longer justified.

Where to Find Related Information:
Cancer Research UK