Feb 12, 2016

Cutting down on alcohol can reduce your risk of cancer – new guidelines backed by scientific evidence

While many of us were fulfilling New Year’s resolutions, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, announced an update to the UK’s drinking guidelines. The guidelines highlight the important health risks associated with alcohol, and advise on the levels we should be drinking. Here, we take a look at why we should reduce our alcohol consumption and how it could impact on our risk of cancer.

beerAlcohol consumption and the risk of cancer

New guidelines for alcohol intake released last month aim to prevent several alcohol-related diseases. And one of these is cancer. Evidence now shows that any level of regular drinking increases your risk of developing cancer and as the amount of being drunk increases, so does the risk. To add to this, evidence that drinking alcohol may be associated with health benefits is now weakening. And this is beginning to show; between 4 and 6% of all new cancers in the UK in 2013 were caused by alcohol consumption.

Scientific evidence

The new guidelines take into account the wealth of scientific research carried out since the last set of guidelines published in 1995. First, studies have proven that some cancers are more common in people who drink more alcohol; these include mouth, throat, voice-box, gullet, large-bowel, liver, breast and probably pancreatic cancers. Scientists have also looked at how alcohol may increase the risk of cancer. They’ve found that both alcohol and its breakdown products can cause damage to cells, making them more likely to become cancerous. Alcohol can also react with other chemicals, such as those in tobacco, further increasing the risk of some cancers.

The guidelines

So, let’s look at exactly how the guidance has changed based on this new evidence. The recommendations for men and women are now the same. The advice is to drink no more than 14 units per week for both men and women. That’s 6 pints of beer or 4 large glasses of wine. To reduce the risks from drinking large amounts at once, ‘saving up’ the 14 units for 1 or 2 days during the week is not advised. Instead, they should be spread over 3 or more days.

Alcohol for patients with cancer

Although the guidelines don’t specifically mention people with cancer, there are also some important considerations for them. It’s not yet clear whether alcohol use after treatment increases the risk of cancer coming back. But, for some, alcohol should be avoided during treatment. This is because interactions between alcohol and some cancer treatments might increase the risk of harmful side effects – for example, many patients suffer from mouth sores and alcohol can irritate them, and make them worse. It’s important to talk to your doctor about this if you are having cancer treatment.

Cutting down

Finally, let’s look at how you can reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. Sometimes, keeping track of exactly what you drink can help. You can also make sure you have several alcohol-free days each week. When you do drink, you could choose lower-strength beers and wines, opt for smaller servings, or replace every other drink with a soft drink. However you manage it, make sure you’re aware of the risks and remember your risk increases as the amount you drink increases, so keep it to a minimum.

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