It’s alcohol awareness week, so we thought we’d tackle some of the most frequently asked questions about alcohol and cancer. From working out what on earth a unit of alcohol is, to clearing up some myths about popular hangover cures, here’s what you need to know about alcohol and cancer:
1. What has alcohol got to do with cancer?
It’s a fair question – because only 1 in 10 people know that alcohol is linked to cancer. To be more specific, alcohol increases the risk of 7 types of cancer, including some of the most common, such as breast and bowel cancer. Not everyone who drinks alcohol will develop cancer. But on the whole, scientists have found that some cancers are more common in people who drink alcohol.
2. Are some types of alcohol better for you?
No type of alcohol is better or worse than another. It’s the alcohol itself that leads to the damage, regardless of whether it’s in wine, beer or spirits. So the more you cut down on the total amount of alcohol you drink, the lower your risk.
3. Isn’t it good for your heart?
There have been studies that suggested drinking a little bit of alcohol may be good for your heart. But an analysis carried out as part of the Chief Medical Officer’s review of the alcohol guidelines in 2016 showed that any potential benefits of drinking alcohol would only be seen in a very small group of the general population. Specifically, women aged 55 and over, who drink very little (about 5 units a week – more on what these are later). Because of that, the latest government guidelines clearly state that drinking for health reasons isn’t recommended. Sorry.
4. What are the benefits of going dry for a month?
Not drinking alcohol for a month can have lots of perks. You might get a fresh outlook on how much you drink, you’ll probably save some money, and cutting the boozy calories could help you lose weight too. And the good news is, the benefits don’t have to stop when the month is over. If you keep it up and drink less in the long term, it could make a real difference to your health – including reducing your risk of cancer.
5. But how does alcohol actually cause cancer?
As we’ve written about before, this isn’t fully understood. But there are three main theories:
- Acetaldehyde – When we drink alcohol, our bodies break it down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde. This chemical can cause cancer by damaging the DNA inside cells and stopping them from repairing the damage.
- Hormones – alcohol can increase the levels of some hormones in the body, such as oestrogen. And some cancer cells can use these hormones as fuel to help them grow. This might explain why alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
- Absorption – alcohol makes it easier for cells in the mouth and throat to absorb other cancer-causing chemicals. This is one reason why people who drink and smoke are at much higher risk of cancer.
6. Is binge drinking worse for you?
It’s likely to give you a worse hangover – and will certainly increase the risk of accidents and injuries. But if we’re talking about cancer risk, at the moment, the picture isn’t clear. Most of the research has looked at the amount of alcohol people drink in total and how this affects cancer risk. So far, evidence suggests that the more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk of cancer – whether you drink it all in one go or a bit at a time.
7. Do hangover remedies really work?
Hair of the dog? A fried breakfast? Everyone has an idea of the best way to get rid of that pounding headache and woolly mouth. We’ve written about some of the most popular hangover cures before but, *spoiler alert*, they don’t work. Neither for the hangovers nor the longer term health harms of alcohol. There is one fail-safe method to avoid a hangover though – drinking less booze. Sorry (again).
8. What are the Government guidelines on alcohol?
In the UK, both men and women are advised to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The guidelines, updated this year, stress that even low levels of drinking can increase the risk of some cancers. Drinking within the limits keeps the health risks low, so don’t see the 14 units as a target – the less you drink, the lower your risk.
9. What’s a unit?
Unfortunately, a unit of alcohol is not the same as a drink. And with so many different drinks available, from pints to shots to a cosmopolitan, tracking the number of units you’re drinking can quickly become confusing. To work out the units, you’ll need to look at the size and strength of your drink. For example, a pint of 3.5% beer has around 2 units of alcohol, whereas the same volume of 5% beer has almost 3 units. Take a look at Drinkaware’s unit calculator, or our graphic below, to find out how many units are in your favourite drink – you might be surprised.
10. What can I do to cut down?
Cutting down on how much you drink can be tough, especially when so many of our social occasions revolve around alcohol. But there are things you can do to make it easier to cut back:
- Buddy up – agree to cut down with a friend or partner and help each other stick to the plan.
- Don’t stock up – it’s often way too easy to automatically reach for a pint or glass of red at the end of the day. If it’s not in the cupboard already, it might make you think twice about how much you really want it.
- Smaller servings or a less alcoholic drink – reduce your units by choosing a smaller glass of wine, a lower strength drink, or make your beer a shandy.
- Stay out of rounds, and in charge – drink at your own pace, instead of feeling pressured to keep up with the fastest drinker in the group.
Katie Edmunds is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK
Read more about alcohol and cancer on our health pages.