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The connection between alcohol, heart disease and cancer

Excessive alcohol can be a contributing factor in the development of a range of illnesses including heart disease, liver damage and seven types of cancer.   2015-11-18

Humans have a long relationship with alcohol. According to Cornell University, archeological evidence suggests that wine making originated in Mesopotamia and areas surrounding the Caspian Sea sometime between 6000 and 4000 BCE. Wine was a drink for royalty and priests, while commoners drank beer, mead, and ale. Archeology has found remains of wine production in Egypt and in what is now Armenia dating back over 6000 years.

Ancient civilizations recognised the medicinal properties of wine. Discoveries in Pharaonic tombs show chemical evidence for wine with medicinal additives. Hippocrates the "father of western medicine", advises that wine be taken as part of a healthy diet and he claims that wine is also good for disinfecting wounds, to alleviate pain during childbirth and to ease symptoms of diarrhoea. Medieval physicians commonly prescribed wine for a range of ailments.

Our relationship with wine and by extension with alcohol in general however, is also confused. This confusion is illustrated perhaps by the Old Testament story of Noah. The first thing that Noah did after the flood was to plant a vineyard, make wine and get drunk. Whilst lying in a drunken stupor he made a fool of himself, leading to a massive bust-up with one of his sons. As far back as the early seventeenth century English clergymen warned that "habitual drunkenness" was a "disease" and to this very day we are regularly warned of the dangers of alcohol.

On February 2014 the World Health Organisation shocked us with the declaration that we are being faced by a tidal wave of cancer and that by the year 2035 there will be 24 million cancer cases worldwide. It is more worrying that half of these cases can be prevented.

Cancer risk

An excess of alcohol leads to loss of inhibitions, affecting behaviour. It affects physical coordination and basic human functions such as walking and speech. Driving under the influence of alcohol in the UK is a crime and can have fatal consequences and alcohol can also raise the risk of certain cancers. The more alcohol we drink, the higher the risk.

According to the charity Alcohol Concern, 34% of men and 28% of women drink more than the advocated amount per week, at least once a week, and more worryingly 9% of men and 6% of women drink very heavily (i.e. three times over the advised limit) on at least one day a week.

Exactly why or how alcohol increases the risk of cancer is not completely understood. It could be that the way alcohol is metabolised can make our body's cells more vulnerable to cancer. Whatever the chemistry, experts warn that certain cancers such as oral, oesophageal, laryngeal, pharyngeal and even skin cancers are more common in alcohol drinkers than in non-alcohol drinkers. Smoking together with alcohol raises the risks significantly.

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Skin cancer

As with other cancers it is not known for certain how or why alcohol raises the risks but it is thought that the ethanol in the alcohol turns into a substance called acetaldehyde which may make the skin more sensitive to UV light. Research published in the British Journal of Dermatology shows that the risk of skin cancer developing raises in direct proportion with alcohol intake. Drinking a few strong beers raise the risk of skin cancer by 55% compared to occasional or non alcohol drinkers.

Breast cancer

According to the charity Drinkaware, 21.6 per cent of all cancer deaths globally are alcohol linked. As far as young women are concerned, evidence shows that women have a 9.5 per cent risk rate of getting breast cancer before they reach the age of 75. If they drink regularly the risk goes up to 10.6 per cent.

The million women study is an ongoing study involving more than a million UK women over the age of 50. It is investigating how reproductive and lifestyle factors affect women’s health. One of the findings of the study is that the risk of developing breast cancer increases by 7.1 per cent for each 10 grams of alcohol drunk which is slightly over 1 unit of alcohol.

Another study, carried out at St Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine found that if a woman has one drink a day between her first period and her first full-term pregnancy, she increases the risk of breast cancer by 13 per cent.

Just a pint of lager

Alcohol causes cancer and the risk is not just for heavy drinkers. You do not to have to be drunk in order to be endangering your health. Experts state that even occasional drinkers increase their risk of contracting cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, drinking a large glass of wine a day or a pint of premium lager can increase the risk of mouth, throat, breast and bowel cancers. Both drinks have about 3 units of alcohol. Experts believe that around 3,100 cases of breast cancer in the UK are alcohol linked.

If the increased cancer risk caused by drinking alcohol were not enough, exceeding the recommended intake of alcohol, can irreparably damage some of your internal organs such as the liver. End-stage liver disease is increasingly being diagnosed among Britons in their 20s and 30s.  Alcohol can also cause stomach ulcers, gastrointestinal problems, fertility complications and weight gain. Addiction can be life threatening if left untreated.

Heart disease

Excessive alcohol can raise the level of triglycerides (fats in the blood) and it can also lead to weight gain and by extension obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart failure. It can also lead to stroke

So how much is safe?

Red wine contains anti-oxidants, flavonoids and a substance called resveratrol which has long been thought to lower the risk of heart disease. So in answer to the confusion highlighted above, is red wine good for us or do the potential risks of alcohol outweigh any benefits?

In the UK it is recommended that men do not drink more than one 175ml glass of alcohol for women and two 175ml glasses for men. According to the Royal College of Physicians special adviser on alcohol, "in addition to quantity, safe alcohol limits must also take into account frequency." As far as wine is concerned moderation is the key and one or two glasses of red wine with the evening meal are thought to be beneficial, but as with other types of alcohol, excess is not good.

In a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which examined the UK’s alcohol guidelines it was recommended that the evidence on alcohol and health risks be reviewed to give the public the best possible advice as regards the dangers of excess. Enjoy yourself this Christmas season which of course includes drinking but it is strongly advised that you give yourself 48 alcohol free hours a week which should especially be taken after a particularly heavy drinking session. Whether you enjoy a glass of red wine with your meal or a pint of lager or Guinness in the pub, alcohol is without doubt one of the pleasures of life, however, drink cautiously to ensure that you enjoy its benefits (both social and health) and not the problems caused by alcohol.