By South Lake Gastroenterology –
Most people know that heavy alcohol use can cause health problems. But many people may not be aware that alcohol use can increase their risk of cancer. Alcohol is a known cause of cancers of the:
- Throat (pharynx)
- Voice box (larynx)
- Colon and rectum
Alcohol may also increase the risk of cancer of the pancreas.
For each of these cancers, the risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed.
Cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus: According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol use clearly raises the risk of these cancers. Drinking and smoking together raises the risk of these cancers far more than the effects of either drinking or smoking alone. This might be because alcohol can act as a solvent, helping harmful chemicals in tobacco to get into the cells lining the digestive tract. Alcohol may also slow down these cells’ ability to repair DNA damage caused by chemicals in tobacco.
Liver cancer: Long-term alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer. Regular, heavy alcohol use can damage the liver, leading to inflammation. This, in turn, may raise the risk of liver cancer.
Colon and rectal cancer: Alcohol use has been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. The evidence for such a link is generally stronger in men than in women, although studies have found the link in both sexes.
Does the type of drink matter?
Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, whether they are beers, wines, or liquors (distilled spirits). Overall, the amount of alcohol consumed over time, not the type of alcoholic beverage, seems to be the most important factor in raising cancer risk. Most evidence suggests that it is the ethanol itself that is responsible for the increased risk, not other things in the drink.
How does alcohol raise cancer risk?
The exact way in which alcohol affects cancer risk isn’t completely understood. In fact, there may be several different ways in which it raises risk, and this may depend on the type of cancer.
Damage to body tissues: Alcohol may act as an irritant, especially in the mouth and throat. Cells that are damaged may try to repair themselves, which may lead to DNA changes in the cells that can be a step toward cancer.
In the colon and rectum, bacteria can convert alcohol into large amounts of acetaldehyde, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals.
Alcohol and its byproducts can also directly damage the liver, leading to inflammation and scarring. As liver cells try to repair the damage, they may acquire mistakes in their DNA.
Effects on other harmful chemicals:
Alcohol may act as a solvent, helping other harmful chemicals, such as those found in tobacco smoke, to enter the cells lining the upper digestive tract more easily. This may help explain why the combination of smoking and drinking is much more likely to cause cancers in the mouth or throat than either smoking or drinking alone. In other cases, alcohol may slow the body’s ability to break down and get rid of some harmful chemicals.
Lower levels of folate or other nutrients: Folate is a vitamin that cells in the body need to stay healthy. Alcohol use may lower the body’s ability to absorb folate from foods. This problem can be compounded in heavy drinkers, who often do not get enough nutrients such as folate in their diet. Low folate levels may play a role in the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
Effects on body weight: Too much alcohol can add extra calories to the diet, which can contribute to weight gain in some people. Being overweight or obese is known to increase the risks of many types of cancer.
Along with these mechanisms, alcohol may contribute to cancer in other, as of yet unknown, ways.
What does the American Cancer Society recommend?
As part of its guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society recommends that people who drink alcohol limit their intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink a day for women. The recommended limit is lower for women because of their smaller body size and because their bodies tend to break down alcohol more slowly. These daily limits do not mean you can drink larger amounts on fewer days of the week, since this can lead to health, social, and other problems.
While alcohol use has been linked to several types of cancer and other health risks, this is complicated by the fact that low to moderate alcohol intake has been linked with a lower risk of heart disease. Still, reducing the risk of heart disease is not a compelling reason for adults who currently do not drink alcohol to start. There are many ways of reducing heart disease risk, including avoiding smoking, eating a diet low in saturated and trans fats, staying at a healthy weight, staying physically active, and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol.
If limiting alcohol consumption is difficult for you or someone you know, please seek guidance before it is too late. If you could lower your risk of developing any type of cancer, isn’t skipping that drink worth it?
Source: American Cancer Society
Gastroen Terology – (352) 242-1665 – www.slgdocs.com