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March 28, 2019
Recently there has been an explosion of research on the link between alcohol and cancer.
We now have strong and consistent evidence that alcohol is a carcinogen.1
Alcohol has been demonstrated to be a risk factor for mouth, throat, breast, colorectal (bowel), liver and pancreatic cancer.1 Despite the strength of this evidence, media reporting often contains inconsistent messages on the health effects of alcohol. This means that many Australians are still confused about the actual risks of alcohol consumption.
In 2015, more than a third of alcohol-related deaths were due to cancer.
That means 2,106 Australians died from alcohol-attributable cancer, with breast cancer being the most common cause for women and bowel (colorectal) cancer the most common cause for men.2
A significant number of these cancers were linked to low or moderate drinking levels. Because the risks are dependent on the amount of alcohol consumed, the risk of these cancers is even higher when alcohol consumption increases.2
Cutting down or refraining from alcohol consumption can therefore mean a significant reduction in the risk of cancer development.3
How alcohol impacts an individual’s health is complex – it affects multiple parts of the body, and factors such as an individual’s genetics, their diet and lifestyle can all influence cancer development.
In short, alcohol damages cells in the body.
When we consume alcohol, our body needs to metabolise the ethanol – 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.4 This process primarily 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.5 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
Researchers closely analysed a number of studies looking at the relationship between alcohol and mortality and found some seriously flawed results.
These studies were supposedly designed to compare the health and life expectancy of current moderate drinkers with people who abstained from alcohol (non-drinkers). However, on a closer look, the abstainer group often included people whose underlying poor health had resulted in them having to cut out alcohol from their diet in the first place.7
These studies claimed that the current moderate drinkers had relatively better health because of their alcohol consumption, when the reality is that they were being compared to people with 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
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 – alcohol has no health benefits.
Current drinkers looking to lower their risk of experiencing long-term harms from alcohol, like the risk of cancer, should follow the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines of having no more than two standard drinks per day.
A drink can be much more than a standard drink. Learn more about what a standard drink is here.