Being Well

Is There a Link Between Alcohol and Cancer Risk?

Heavy drinking is harmful to your health and is linked to serious medical conditions, including cancer.

The impacts of alcohol, both positive and negative, seem to always be in debate. But there’s one thing the medical industry seems to agree on across the board — moderation is key. According to the Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “moderate alcohol consumption” comprises one drink per day for women, and two for men. Heavy drinking is harmful to your health and is linked to serious medical conditions. Alcohol and cancer have a direct relationship when it comes to cancer. Here are five ways excessive drinking can increase cancer risk:

1) It can impair your fitness plan

It may not be the best idea to kick back with some brews after a friendly rugby match or your gym workout. A study by scientific journal PLOS ONE suggests that drinking could negatively affect the way you build skeletal muscle, which could be bad news for cancer patients going through recovery, or anyone looking to improve their health or athletic performance. If you get invited to go out for a drink after your workout, you may want to stick to cucumber water or protein shakes. Given that your efforts at the gym are to improve your health, remember the effects of alcohol and cancer risk, and risk of other health conditions associated with drinking.

2) It contributes to weight gain

The most popular regular beers contain about 150 calories, and a margarita has almost as much sugar as a can of cola. The additional caloric and sugar intake of alcoholic drinks can lead to obesity, which is linked to an increased risk of breast, colorectal, kidney and pancreatic cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. If you figure a drink or two into your diet per day, consider it a replacement for an evening snack or dessert.

3) It’s bad for your heart

According to the American Heart Association, drinking too much can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. Alcohol can increase the level of triglycerides in your blood. This type of fat stores excess energy from your diet, and is associated with high cholesterol levels. While this isn’t directly linked to your cancer risk, certain cancer treatments can weaken your heart, so heart disease from excessive drinking can limit your treatment options.

4) It can cause liver cancer

The American Cancer Society notes that most people who develop liver cancer show evidence of the disease cirrhosis, which is when scar tissue replaces injured liver cells. In the U.S., heavy drinking is the number-one cause of cirrhosis, which carries significant liver cancer risk.

5) It can affect your mental health

A study reported on by the MGH/HST Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging suggests that chronic alcohol use can affect parts of the brain that help people abstain from alcohol or drinking responsibly.

Similarly to the way frequent drinking can hinder your inhibitions and make you think it’s okay to keep drinking, alcohol and depression seem to be connected. An article in Psychology Today notes that nearly 40 of people being treated for major depressive disorder have suffered from alcoholism or will in the future, and that almost 50 percent of people being treated for alcoholism are depressed. If you’re already dealing with the emotional struggles of a cancer diagnosis, heavy drinking can only worsen your mood and make it more difficult to cope throughout the disease.

The key to drinking responsibly is to keep it in moderation — don’t let yourself get carried away. If you don’t drink, that’s great. There’s probably no reason to start. If you do, just be sure to stay within your daily limits, hydrate yourself and ask your doctor how alcohol can contribute to your personal risks of cancer.

More Information

Quitting or reducing drinking is a great measure toward preventing cancer. For more prevention tips, visit UVA Cancer Center‘s website.

Learn More
Naheed Ali, MD, PhD
Naheed Ali, MD, PhD