The Link Between Alcohol and Cancer (and How to Lower Your Risk)

There are several types of cancer linked to excess alcohol intake.

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The health risks of drinking too much are not a secret. Most people think of mental health issues like substance use disorder, or accidents like fatal drunk driving collisions. However, the link between alcohol intake and cancer don’t always get as much attention.

Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Alcohol has a unique impact on health. Historically, studies have shown that small amounts of alcohol can be somewhat beneficial. For example, one serving of red wine a couple times a week could have antioxidant benefits.

That said, large amounts of alcohol may cancel out those benefits. They can even be harmful, and not just because they give you a hangover the next morning. When your body metabolizes (breaks down) alcohol, it creates a harmful byproduct. This byproduct is called acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde is a chemical that can damage cells and their DNA. This sets the groundwork for tumors to develop.

As of 2016, acetaldehyde is listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A carcinogen is a cancer-causing substance. Alcoholic beverages themselves are listed as “known to be a human carcinogen.”

The more alcohol you drink, the higher your exposure to acetaldehyde. In turn, this creates a higher cancer risk. Too much alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the:

  • Breast (in women)
  • Colon and rectum
  • Mouth and throat
  • Esophagus
  • Larynx
  • Liver

Lowering Your Risk of Cancer

Because of the cancer-causing effects of alcohol, experts recommend limiting or avoiding drinking. Even though there are potential benefits, experts note that there are no benefits of alcohol that you can’t get from other foods.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, set recommendations for “moderate” drinking. This means no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two for men. Here are other lifestyle changes that can lower your overall risk of cancer.

If you’re struggling to moderate your drinking, talk to your doctor. They can help you find the resources to curb your intake and reduce your risk and health problems.