Alcohol and Your Health: How Much is Too Much?
by Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
It’s no wonder people are confused about the health effects of alcohol. We’ve seen headlines ranging from “A Drink a Day is Good for your Heart,” to “Studies Show Even Moderate Drinking Increases Breast Cancer Risk.” In recognition of April as Alcohol Awareness Month, let’s get to the facts about the health impacts of alcohol consumption.
How Much Is Light, Moderate and Heavy Drinking?
First, let’s talk about what constitutes a drink and drinking. One drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. According to the latest U.S. dietary guidelines, updated every five years and again in 2020, women should drink no more than one serving of alcohol per day; men can drink up to two. Those guidelines have defined moderate alcohol consumption for more than two decades.
Anything more than that is considered heavy drinking and indisputably is associated with many health issues, including taking a toll on the liver (cirrhosis, fibrosis or fatty liver) and causing damage to the heart which can elevate blood pressure and increase chances of heart attack and stroke. In addition, heavy drinking has been shown to weaken the immune system, negatively affect the pancreas (leading to pancreatitis,) and increase the chance for many types of cancer. And of course, heavy drinking increases the chance of alcohol addiction, weight gain and poor reflexes. Most people are well aware of the dangers of heavy drinking.
But most adults fall into the light to moderate drinker category. Moderate drinking is what has left many confused: is moderate drinking good for you? Safe or harmful? When it comes to cancer risk, the answer is no amount of alcohol is considered safe.
Alcohol and Cancer
Multiple studies demonstrate that alcohol consumption – at any level – is related to increased risk of developing many types of cancers, including oral, esophageal, colorectal, liver, larynx, pancreas, prostate, melanoma and breast cancer.
It is estimated that alcohol causes 100,000 new cases of breast cancer every year. A major report released in March 2017 by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) showed that just one drink per day increases women’s risk of developing breast cancer. This may be due to a number of reasons. First, we know that alcohol can lead to unwanted weight gain, and excess fat can lead to increased cancer risk. Secondly, alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with breast cancer. And lastly, alcohol users are more likely to have increased amounts of folic acid in their systems, which can lead to increased cancer risk. (The same study also showed that regular exercise can help decrease the risk of developing breast cancer. Multiple studies show that maintaining a healthy weight and adhering to a Mediterranean diet and one rich in fiber can decrease a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.)
Just this month, a study published in The Lancet reviewed data from 600,00 people who drink not at all to more than 350 grams (approximately 2 – 3 drinks a day). It found that people who drank the equivalent of more than 6 glasses of wine a week had an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, heart failure, fatal hypertensive disease and fatal aortic aneurysm.
Alcohol and Heart Health
Unfortunately, consumers are confused about or are not well educated about the harmful effects of even light drinking. One reason is because consumers have heard for years that alcohol may be good for your heart. And there are studies that suggest light to moderate drinking appears to protect some healthy people (those who don’t already have a heart condition) against heart disease. A review published by the Harvard School of Public Health of more than 100 prospective studies showed that moderate drinkers had a 25 to 40 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease, and death from cardiovascular causes compared to nondrinkers. Alcohol appears to raise HDL – “good cholesterol”—and prevents damage caused by higher levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol.”) Additionally, alcohol appears to reduce inflammation and helps stop blood from clotting (which can help prevent heart attack and stroke, but can also increase bleeding.)
The Alcohol Industry (which supports many of these studies) shares data in an attempt to serve as a health resource, and headlines such as “A Drink a Day Is Good for Your Heart,” make national news for days. Who doesn’t want to believe that a drink a day is good for you?
Physicians and Alcohol Consumption
A second reason consumers are not aware of the dangers of drinking is because physicians primarily focus on the dangers of heavy drinking and not on the increased risk of developing cancer with even light drinking. Why? Some speculate that it’s because many physicians – like many patients – enjoy light-to-moderate drinking themselves and prefer to “deny” the risks.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Alcohol is a toxic carcinogen that can be addictive. Consumers should have all the facts about the dangers of drinking and consider their alcohol consumption, along with diet and exercise, as part of their overall health lifestyle. When it comes to cancer, even light drinking (one drink a day) can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Want to Learn More? Check out this video from nutritionFacts.org about alcohol and cancer for more information.