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The truth about alcohol and cancer

Does alcohol cause cancer?

16th December 2019

In the news you’ll often see conflicting stories on the links between alcohol and cancer. Some say a little bit of drinking is beneficial to your health. Others say that any amount will harm you. So which is it? The truth is clearer than a gin and tonic.

All the best available evidence (for which there is a lot) tells us that drinking alcohol causes seven types of cancer. It doesn’t matter what you drink and it doesn’t matter how you drink it. Alcohol is a carcinogen. Alcohol causes cancer.

The seven types of cancer that alcohol can cause are:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Upper throat cancer (pharyngeal)
  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Voice box cancer (laryngeal)
  • Breast cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Liver cancer

“But I'm a responsible drinker, I’m not a binge drinker, what about me?”

The evidence currently shows that no pattern of drinking behaviour is different when it comes to cancer risk. All that matters is the amount you drink. The more you drink, the higher your risk of developing cancer.

The good news is that you can do something to reduce your risk of cancer. The evidence shows that cutting down at any level will have a benefit. But the biggest impact you can have on your cancer risk, is not drinking at all.

How does alcohol cause cancer?

There’s a pattern in the seven types of cancer caused by cancer. Mouth, throat, oesophageal and voice box are all areas that encounter alcohol when you drink it. Some cells in these areas can turn alcohol into a chemical called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde can cause cancer by damaging DNA and causing genetic mutations that lead to cancer developing. Acetaldehyde is also abundant in tobacco smoke.

Your liver breaks down and detoxifies chemicals. When you drink alcohol, your liver works to break it down. This produces toxic molecules, including acetaldehyde. These molecules can damage the DNA of liver cells and cause them to become cancer.

Alcohol can also cause an imbalance in the levels of certain hormones in our body. In particular, alcohol can increase the levels the hormones oestrogen and insulin. Both hormones can contribute to cancer because they are able to make cells grow and divide. Oestrogen exerts a powerful effect in breast tissue, which explain why alcohol increases a person’s risk of breast cancer.