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Alcohol and Health

How Does Alcohol Increase Cancer Risk?

June 23, 2023
9 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 23, 2023
9 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 23, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 23, 2023
9 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 23, 2023
9 min read

Alcohol has been part of our cultures for thousands of years, often celebrated for its taste and effects, but it has a dark side. And while it’s no secret that excessive drinking can cause all sorts of medical and social problems, there is another — even sneakier! — danger: the link between alcohol and certain types of cancer. Does alcohol cause cancer? Let’s explore just how alcohol might increase cancer risk — and what we can do about it.

The Liver’s Limits

Is alcohol a carcinogen? Yes, but the real risk is its metabolite, acetaldehyde. When we consume alcohol, our bodies set out to break it down, primarily in the liver. In this process, a compound called acetaldehyde is formed. Acetaldehyde is a bit of a rascal. It's a carcinogen, which means it can cause cancer by damaging DNA and stopping our cells from repairing this damage. Over time, this can lead to abnormal cell growth, potentially developing into cancer.

Let’s look into the mechanics of acetaldehyde in a bit more detail. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified this volatile compound in the highest risk category: it’s a Group 1 carcinogen alongside substances like tobacco smoke and asbestos.

But how exactly does acetaldehyde contribute to cancer development? There are several ways it exerts its harmful effects:

  • DNA damage. Acetaldehyde has the ability to interact directly with our DNA, the blueprint of life in our cells. It can form so-called "DNA adducts” — distorted structures within our DNA that can lead to cancer-causing mutations during cell replication.
  • Impaired DNA repair. In addition to damaging DNA, acetaldehyde also hinders our body's ability to repair that damage by inhibiting the body’s natural repair processes and allowing the damaged DNA to be replicated.
  • Protein dysfunction. Acetaldehyde can also alter the structure and function of proteins in our body. When these proteins are involved in critical cellular processes, their malfunction can lead to abnormal cell growth and, eventually, cancer.
  • Oxidative stress. Metabolizing acetaldehyde can generate what's known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), unstable molecules that can damage our cells, including DNA. This process — known as oxidative stress — is a well-known contributor to cancer development.
  • Folate metabolism. Alcohol metabolism also interferes with the way our body handles folate, an essential B-vitamin. Folate is crucial for DNA synthesis and repair, and a deficiency can lead to DNA damage. Some studies have suggested that people who drink alcohol might benefit from increased folate intake to help counter this effect.

Our bodies do have defense mechanisms against acetaldehyde, such as the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), which breaks down acetaldehyde into a non-toxic substance. However, certain individuals have a variant of the ALDH enzyme that works less efficiently, leading to a flushed complexion and an accumulation of acetaldehyde after drinking. This population may have a higher risk of alcohol-related cancers.

Breast Cancer and Alcohol: The Hormone Connection

Alcohol also impacts hormone levels, especially sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. These hormonal imbalances are another route by which alcohol can increase cancer risk — particularly breast cancer. Breast cancer and alcohol have a well-established relationship. Let’s discuss the connection!

In women, estrogen promotes the development and maintenance of female characteristics, but it also regulates the growth and division of breast cells. Consuming alcohol can increase levels of estrogen in the body. A higher estrogen level means more cell divisions in breast tissue, increasing the likelihood of mutations and the development of cancer cells. Some of these cell divisions can lead to mutations, and over time, these mutations can accumulate and result in cancer.

Alcohol can also impact other hormones. For instance, it can raise levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which encourages cells to divide. Higher levels of IGF-1 have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancer.

Additionally, alcohol can affect the liver's ability to regulate hormone levels due to the liver's role in detoxifying alcohol and metabolizing hormones. This can lead to hormonal imbalances and further increase the risk of cancer.

The hormonal effects of alcohol contribute to the risk of several cancers. Apart from breast cancer, alcohol-related hormonal imbalances can increase the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers in women, and possibly prostate cancer in men.

Partners in Crime

In addition to triggering these internal mechanisms, alcohol can increase cancer risk indirectly by making it easier for other harmful processes to take place. 

Alcohol can act as a solvent, making it easier for carcinogenic chemicals — such as tobacco smoke — to enter our cells. It can also weaken our immune system, making it harder for us to fight off diseases, including cancer. 

Lowering Our Risk

So how can we use this information to live healthier lives? For one, cutting back on alcohol or abstaining altogether can significantly reduce our risk. 

Here are some additional changes that can make a big difference:

  • Be informed. Understanding the risk is the first step. You're already doing great just by reading this!
  • Set realistic goals. Maybe going “cold turkey” feels like too much. That's okay! Try setting manageable goals, such as having alcohol-free days during the week or reducing the number of drinks you have at a time.
  • Find healthy substitutes. If you find yourself reaching for a drink out of habit, try substituting a non-alcoholic beverage. Herbal tea, flavored water, and smoothies can be great alternatives.
  • Get active. Regular physical activity not only takes your mind off drinking but also helps to lower your cancer risk. Win-win!
  • Build a support network. Let your friends and family know about your goal. They can offer much-needed support and encouragement along the way.

Together, we can navigate the journey to a healthier, happier life. Remember, every little step counts! 

Ready To Improve Your Health and Rethink Your Habits?

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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