DRINKING ALCOHOL DOES NOT PROTECT AGAINST CANCER
Most people like a bit of alcohol, so it’s natural to tune in to reports about its benefits. There are widespread rumours that certain types of alcohol, like red wine, can help to protect against cancer. And when it comes to the negative side of drinking, most people think of hangovers or liver problems.
But in reality, the consequences of drinking too much alcohol go well beyond the evening’s embarrassing antics or the morning’s hangover.
Alcohol is actually one of the most important causes of cancer. Decades of solid evidence have shown us that it can cause seven types of cancer, including breast, bowel, mouth and liver cancers. It’s estimated to account for around 15,000 cases of cancer in the UK every year. You can find out more about the science linking alcohol to cancer in Cancer Research UK’s blog.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
This isn’t just about alcoholics or people who binge-drink. The risks of alcohol have little to do with how drunk you feel. As little as three units a day – about what’s in a pint of premium lager or a large glass of wine – can increase the risk of cancers of the breast, bowel, mouth and food pipe.
The risk is limited if you only drink a little, such as one small drink a day for women (about two units a day), or two small drinks a day for men (about three to four units a day). But no matter how much you currently drink, the more you cut down, the more you reduce your risk of cancer.
For information on how much alcohol’s in a unit visit Cancer Research UK’s website, where you’ll also find their award-winning ‘track your drinking’ widget,
HOW DOES ALCOHOL CAUSES CANCER?
In your body, alcohol is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. It gives you a headache in the morning but it does much more in the long term. Acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage.
This is one of the reasons why alcohol can cause cancer. It can also lead to high levels of oestrogen, which have been linked to breast cancer. And it can cause cirrhosis of the liver, which greatly increases the risk of liver cancer.
Alcohol can also make it easier for your mouth and throat to absorb other cancer-causing chemicals, such as those in tobacco smoke. This is why smoking and drinking together increase the risk of cancer much more than either habit alone.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BENEFITS?
Red wine contains high levels of a chemical called resveratrol, which has some anti-cancer effects on laboratory-grown cancer cells. Scientists are testing purified resveratrol as a way of preventing or treating cancer. But this is a far cry from saying that drinking red wine can protect people from cancer.
Red wine contains many other chemicals, that are not so beneficial, including alcohol itself, and the chemicals it is converted into. Ed Yong, Cancer Research UK’s head of health evidence says, “It’s clear that all types of alcohol can increase the risk of cancer, including both red and white wines and based on studies done so far, there is no strong evidence that red wine could protect against cancer.”
Drinking small amounts of alcohol can protect against heart disease but this does not apply to younger people. Drinking alcohol specifically to improve your health is unlikely to work and heavy drinking can actually increase the risk of heart disease.