Make 'happy hour' healthier: limit your alcohol to reduce your cancer risk

The Bottom Line

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies alcohol as a carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer.

  • Alcohol is known to increase the chances of liver, esophageal, breast and colorectal cancers, among others.

  • Avoid alcohol or limit your drinks: no more than one a day for women; no more than two a day for men.

A cold beer on a hot afternoon, a glass of wine with dinner, a brandy or liqueur to cap off the evening... alcohol is one of life's pleasures for many people. But this is one of those cases where too much of a good thing can have bad consequences. Among all the other reasons for avoiding or limiting alcohol here's one you may not know - it can help reduce your risk of getting cancer (1-3).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified alcohol as a "carcinogen", a substance that can cause cancer (1;2;4). How? There are several ways alcohol can increase cancer risk (1;4):

  • By breaking down ethanol in alcoholic drinks to "acetaldehyde", a toxic chemical; acetaldehyde can damage both DNA and proteins

  • Through a process called oxidation that can damage DNA and lipids (fats)

  • By hampering the body's ability to break down and absorb nutrients needed to maintain health and fight disease

  • By increasing blood levels of estrogen, a sex hormone linked to the risk of breast cancer

Types of cancer that are especially impacted by alcohol include head and neck cancers (particularly involving the oral cavity), liver cancer, esophageal cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer (2). Additional studies continue to confirm the unhealthy relationship between alcohol and cancer. For example, a meta-analysis of 57 studies found that people who regularly drank 50 grams or more of alcohol a day (about three and half drinks) were one and a half times more likely to get colorectal cancer than non-drinkers or occasional drinkers (5).

Isn't red wine supposed to be good for you?

People are understandably confused by conflicting messages, such as the one about the heart healthy benefits of resveratrol which is found in red wine: research results about the heart benefits of alcohol are not conclusive. A study confirmed that moderate alcohol consumption may help lower the risk of some (not all) heart conditions. But it's a fine line: drinking any more than that will increase risk. And people who don't already drink are not advised to start (6).

Avoiding alcohol is your safest option, but if you choose to drink, follow the recommended guidelines: no more than one drink a day for women, no more than two a day for men (7).

"Responsible" drinking is imperative for social, economic, ethical, physical and legal reasons. Being aware of the association between alcohol and serious diseases, including cancer, may provide additional motivation to "cut yourself off" and enjoy a longer, healthier life.

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  1. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective. Continuous update project expert report 2018. Available from https://www.wcrf.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Summary-of-Third-Expert-Report-2018.pdf 

  2. World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective. Washington (DC): AICR; 2007. 537 p. Available from: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/4841/1/4841.pdf

  3. Secretan B, Straif K, Baan R, et al. A review of human carcinogens – Part E: tobacco, areca nut, alcohol, coal smoke, and salted fish. Lancet Oncol. 2009; 10(11):1033-1034. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(09)70326-2.

  4. International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2012. 100E vol. Available from: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100E/mono100E.pdf

  5. Fedirko V, Tramacere I, Bagnardi V, et al. Alcohol drinking and colorectal cancer risk: an overall and dose-response meta-analysis of published studies. Ann of Oncol. 2011; 22(9):1958-1972. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdq653. 

  6. Bell S, Daskalopoulou M, Rapsomaniki E, et al. Association between clinically recorded alcohol consumption and initial presentation of 12 cardiovascular diseases: Population based cohort study using linked health records. BMJ. 2017; 356:j909. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j909.

  7. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012; 62(1):30-67. doi: 10.3322/caac.20140.

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