February 3, 2021

Every alcoholic drink increases your risk of cancer

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Due to growing research on the link between alcohol and cancer, we now have strong and consistent evidence that alcohol causes cancer.1

Alcohol increases your risk for mouth, throat, breast, bowel, liver and pancreatic cancer.1

Despite the strength of this evidence, media reporting often contains conflicting messaging on the health effects of alcohol. This means that many Australians are still confused about the actual risks of drinking alcohol.

Australian situation

A study by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) found that more than a third (36%) of alcohol-related deaths in 2015 were due to cancer.2 A total of 2106 Australians died from cancer linked to alcohol consumption. Breast cancer was the most common cause for women and bowel cancer the most common cause for men.2

Researchers from this study explained that a significant number of these cancers were linked to low or moderate drinking levels.3 Because the risks are dependent on the amount of alcohol you drink, the risk of these cancers is higher when alcohol consumption increases.1, 3

This is not to say that drinking alcohol will result in the development of cancer – but it does increase your risk. Cutting down - or not drinking - can significantly reduce that risk.4

How does alcohol cause cancer?

How alcohol impacts a person’s health is complex.

It affects multiple parts of the body and the impact will be dependent on a number of factors such as genetics, diet and lifestyle. All these factors can influence the level of cancer risk for each person.

Alcohol damages cells in the body

When we consume alcohol, our body needs to metabolise the ethanol. This is a chemical compound found in all types of alcohol. A bi-product called acetaldehyde is created during this process and this chemical damages our DNA.5 This process mainly happens in the liver but also occurs in the mouth.

Alcohol also interferes with hormones. Hormones instruct our cells to do certain things such as grow and divide.

It has been found that alcohol increases levels of oestrogen in the body. This oestrogen driven growth in cells is thought to be a key factor in the development of hormonal-based cancers, such as breast cancer.6

Impact of alcohol on health

Researchers closely analysed a number of studies looking at the relationship between alcohol and death and found some seriously flawed results. Some studies had previously claimed that alcohol had health benefits.

These studies were supposedly designed to compare the health and life expectancy of current moderate drinkers with non-drinkers (abstainers). However, on a closer look, the non-drinker group often included people whose underlying poor health had resulted in them having to cut out alcohol in the first place.7

These studies claimed that the current moderate drinkers had relatively better health because of their alcohol consumption. The reality is that they were being compared to people who had pre-existing health issues.

When the researchers re-examined these studies and eliminated this ‘abstainer bias’, it was found that alcohol consumption had no health benefits.7

Of the 87 studies analysed, 74 were found to be based on a flawed study design and the remaining 13 also found that alcohol had no health benefits.7

Changing how we think about alcohol

Understanding the long-term health effects of alcohol consumption can be confusing due to the many conflicting messages we receive. However, the research is clear – there are no health benefits from alcohol.1

If you are looking to lower your alcohol consumption, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines recommend having no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks a day.

More information

  1. Cancer Australia. Alcohol. Australian Government. 2019.
  2. NDRI. Media Release: Alcohol causes nearly 6,000 Australian deaths in one year, a third from cancer. 2018.
  3. Stockwell , T & Zhao, J. Alcohol's contribution to cancer is underestimated for exactly the same reason that its contribution to cardio protection is overestimated. Addiction. 2016. 112(2):230-232.
  4. Garaycoechea, Juan I, et al. Alcohol and endogenous aldehydes damage chromosomes and mutate stem cells. Nature. 2018. 553(7687):171–177.
  5. Cancer Research UK. Does alcohol cause cancer? 2018.
  6. Maniyar R, Chakraborty S, Suriano R. Ethanol enhances estrogen mediated angiogenesis in breast cancer. Journal of cancer. 2018. 9(21):3874–3885.7.
  7. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. NDRI research challenges health benefits of alcohol. 2016.

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