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Does drinking alcohol increase the risk of cancer?


Last updated on February 21st, 2024 at 11:18 am

The World Health Organization (WHO) has long recommended that reducing alcohol consumption is one of the ways to reduce the risk of cancer. However, there wasn’t good evidence that supported whether drinking alcohol was a strong risk factor for the development of cancer.

The benefits of drinking less alcohol are well documented. For example, a systematic review (considered at the top of the hierarchy of biomedical research) of 63 published studies found that reducing or giving up alcohol reduced people’s risk for hospitalization, injuries, and death. The lifestyle change also improved people’s physical and mental health, and quality of life. Unfortunately, this study did not look at cancer.

WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) examined the current published research as to whether the reduction in the consumption of alcohol on cancer risk, but the results were mixed. As I usually do, I will summarize the key results and determine if there are links between alcohol and cancer risk.

Alcohol and cancer risk paper

In a paper published on 28 December 2023 in the New England Journal of Medicine (one of the top medical journals), the IARC working group, which included 15 cancer scientists from eight countries, examined dozens of published articles on evidence to support a link between eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption and lowering of cancer risk.

Here are the key results:

Still, the authors noted that there were “significant scientific gaps” for most alcohol-related cancers. For example, the researchers reviewed four studies that examined any potential links between CRC and alcohol. Two studies showed that reducing alcohol consumption did appear to lower CRC risk but the other two studies did not.

This is why scientists rarely cherry-pick research, because if you just looked at one study you may make the wrong conclusion. Essentially, the total body of evidence supporting a link between CRC and alcohol is “limited.” In other words, we need a lot more research into this potential link to determine whether or not there really is a link.

Another example is whether there is a link between liver cancer and a reduction in alcohol consumption. One study seems to show that quitting alcohol was linked to a lower liver cancer risk, but that was only in individuals with alcohol-related liver disease. Another 11 studies showed that there was no clear link between quitting drinking and liver cancer among individuals without alcohol-related liver disease.

Summary

Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption seems to be linked to a reduction in some cancers, but does not have any statistically significant effect on other cancers. As I have discussed before, it is very difficult to link something in the environment with cancer, especially since about 67% of cancers have no cause, they are nothing but random mutations that just happen.

There are a lot of good reasons to reduce or even eliminate your consumption of alcohol. Moreover, there is some evidence that some cancers are linked to alcohol consumption, and your risk of cancer can be reduced if you eliminate alcohol.

IARC previously estimated that alcohol consumption accounts for about 4% of newly diagnosed cancers worldwide, most commonly esophagus, liver, and breast cancer. This means that there is some evidence that alcohol is related to some cancers, and that is a good reason to reduce or eliminate consumption.

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Michael Simpson

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