Does Drinking Alcohol Increase Oral and Throat Cancer Risk?
Alcohol is one of the most controversial beverages there is. Some health experts tell us that it should be entirely avoided while others say there are actually benefits in moderate consumption of certain types. When it comes to the link between alcohol use and oral cancers, there is a strong consensus of evidence. Let’s examine this relationship and what you can do to help lower your risk of developing oral and throat cancer.
Alcohol as a Risk Factor
Alcohol consumption has been associated with a higher risk for a number of cancers, particularly oral and throat cancers. It also promotes the development of breast and digestive cancers of the stomach, esophagus, colon, and rectum.
The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of cancer becomes.1 With that being said, both people who consume alcohol occasionally and people who binge drink have increased cancer risk. There is generally no amount of alcohol consumption that doesn’t raise cancer risk.2 This includes red wine, which is often purported to have anti-cancer benefits due to its antioxidant content. However, there is not enough data to support this.3
Furthermore, some people who have an inherited genetic deficiency in the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol have a significantly higher risk for esophageal cancer if they drink it.4
The biggest factor in alcoholic beverages and their influence on cancer risk is the ethanol content of the drink. Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in all alcoholic drinks, including liquor, beer, wine, and the like. There are varying percentages of ethanol in alcoholic beverages and higher amounts in stronger drinks. However, you will get around 0.5 ounces of ethanol in what’s considered a standard serving size of alcohol, which may be a 12-ounce beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquid, 8-9 ounces of malt liquor, or 5 ounces of wine.
Just like diet and disease, it’s more insightful to examine your pattern of alcohol consumption over time than it is to scrutinize your consumption of one specific drink. Paying attention to the types of alcoholic beverages you generally consume over the long term is more indicative of how they may influence your throat and oral cancer risk later. Reducing your alcohol intake is never a bad idea.
How Alcohol Raises Cancer Risk
Data from 2009 shows that at least 3.5% of cancer deaths in the United States are related to alcohol intake.5 But how does alcohol raise cancer risk exactly?
Consuming alcohol promotes oxidative stress and inflammation. It can irritate cells throughout the mouth, throat, and digestive tract and actually damage them. When cells try to repair themselves, this can lead to one step toward cancer development. And when alcohol has entered the body, it can be converted to a chemical called acetaldehyde that can damage DNA.
Drinking alcohol likely adversely alters the oral microbiome — or the community of microorganisms that live in your mouth and throat. This can lead to a higher amount of pathogenic bacteria present in the oral cavity, which may help explain why alcohol is one of the top three risk factors for oral cancer.6
Alcohol can also slow your body’s ability to break down and protect itself from other harmful substances getting inside and causing damage. This may explain why the combination of alcohol and tobacco together is so much worse than either substance on its own.7
Lastly, alcohol reduces the absorption of important nutrients in foods, like folate, especially if folate intake is already low. Folate is a B vitamin involved in making DNA and other genetic material as well as the process of cellular division. A low folate level in the body is associated with a higher risk for many cancers.8
How Much Alcohol is Okay to Drink?
If you don’t consume alcohol already, there is no reason to start. If you do consume alcohol, it’s important to take note of how frequent, how much, and what types of alcohol you’re drinking the most and consider reducing it.
When someone stops consuming alcohol, their cancer risk does not immediately decrease. However, the risk does eventually go down, though it can take many years to do so.9
Alcohol consumption doesn’t come without risks, and unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that drinking it can increase the risk for oral and throat cancers, among others. For this reason and others, the ideal amount of alcohol to consume is little to none. It’s important to pay attention to your alcohol intake and practice other healthy lifestyle habits, like eating a nutrient-rich diet, getting regular exercise, and not using tobacco or smoking.
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