Causes of Cancer

Celebrating Safely: What You Need to Know About the Genetic Risk of Alcohol-Related Cancers

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year – with most weekends and evenings filled with gatherings and events with loved ones. As the holiday period creeps closer, the calendars get busier. While an absolutely joyous time, it is also a time of excess, especially when it comes to alcohol.

While alcohol can negatively impact the health of all consumers, some are at a much higher risk, especially when it comes to cancer

So who’s at risk, and how can you ensure you are celebrating safely this holiday?

What are alcohol-related cancers?

Researchers have identified clear patterns between alcohol consumption and the development of many types of cancers. These cancers include head and neck, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancer. 

The hypothesis is that the risk increases due to multiple factors. One example is related to the body’s ability to metabolize, or break down, the ethanol in alcohol into acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical that can damage both DNA and proteins, increasing one’s risk of cancer. Similarly, the generation of reactive oxygen species that occurs when consuming alcohol can also damage DNA and proteins, and lipids in the body.

Another way in which alcohol consumption may increase one’s risk of cancer is by impairing the body’s ability to break down and absorb a variety of nutrients that may be negatively associated with cancer risk, including:

  • vitamin A
  • nutrients in the vitamin B complex, such as folate 
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin D
  • vitamin E and 
  • carotenoids.

Finally, breast cancer is a particular concern when consuming alcohol, as alcohol increases blood levels of estrogen, a sex hormone linked to the risk of breast cancer.

Who’s at risk of alcohol-related cancers?

A person’s risk of alcohol-related cancers is influenced by their genes, specifically those that encode enzymes involved in metabolizing alcohol.

For example, one way the body metabolizes alcohol is through the activity of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), which converts ethanol into the carcinogenic metabolite acetaldehyde, mainly in the liver. Recent studies suggest that acetaldehyde production also occurs in the oral cavity and may be influenced by factors such as the oral microbiome.

It is common for individuals of East Asian descent to carry a version of the gene for ADH that speeds up the conversion of alcohol to toxic acetaldehyde. The presence of this gene increases the risk of pancreatic cancer amongst those individuals. 

Are there any benefits to alcohol consumption?

You may have heard that a glass of red wine per day is good for the heart, but there is a lot of conflicting evidence surrounding this statement. While some research suggests it benefits the heart, most cancer experts ascertain that no amount of alcohol supports cancer prevention. 

Similarly, some researchers suggest alcohol consumption may be associated with decreased risks of kidney cancers and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, any potential benefits of alcohol consumption for reducing the risks of some cancers are likely outweighed by the harms of alcohol consumption.

How can I consume safely?

Experts say the more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk of developing cancer. This does not necessarily mean you cannot enjoy a holiday spirit or two, but reducing the strength and quantity of drinks can be incredibly beneficial. We recommend that women should have no more than one drink per day and men no more than two.