In Finland, alcohol is responsible for an estimated 1 200 cases of cancer a year. The cancers that alcohol causes have become more common. Alcohol is one of the most significant cancer risks associated with lifestyle.
All alcoholic beverages increase cancer risk. In terms of cancer, it does not matter whether you drink wine, beer, cider or spirits. What matters is the amount of alcohol you drink.
What types of cancer does alcohol cause?
Cancer can cause (at least)
- cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx and oesophagus
- cancer of the liver
- colorectal cancer
- breast cancer
People who regularly consume four units of alcohol on a daily basis are two to three times more likely to get cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx and oesophagus. A comparable amount of alcohol also carries a 1.5 times greater risk of breast cancer or cancer of the colon. The more alcohol a person consumes, the greater the risk of getting cancer.It is worth noting that even one unit of alcohol consumed daily increases the risk of breast cancer by about 10 %.Alcohol damages the cells of the liver. Abundant and prolonged alcohol use increases the risk of liver cirrhosis. And liver cirrhosis is the major risk factor for liver cancer. Some 10 – 20 % of liver cirrhosis patients develop liver cancer.
Alcohol increases the risk of cancer in different ways. The ethanol contained in alcohol is an essential carcinogen.
Acetaldehyde: The ethanol in alcohol changes in the body into acetaldehyde. This is a toxic chemical that damages DNA and prevents cells from repairing such damage. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies both acetaldehyde and ethanol as carcinogens. The damage caused by acetaldehyde causes at least head and neck cancer, and colon cancer.
Oxidative stress: Where harmful compounds are formed in the body’s cells as a result of drinking alcohol. These oxygen-containing ROS molecules can damage the structure of cells, such as DNA, which increases the risk of cancer.
Hormones: Alcohol increases the amount of oestrogen in the body. Oestrogen is a female sex hormone that transmits information to cells concerning such things as when they should divide. An unusually high oestrogen level increases the risk of breast cancer in women.
Overweight: Alcohol contains a lot of unnecessary calories. Abundant alcohol use can lead to overweight. Excessive weight has been shown to increase the risk of several types of cancer.
Alcohol also irritates bodily tissues, especially in the mouth and throat. This can lead to cell and tissue damage, increasing the risk of cancer as a result.
Alcohol consumption in Finland is average compared to European levels. The problem in Finland, however, is binge drinking – Finns drink a lot at a time.
“The problem in Finland is binge drinking”
Consumption of spirits in Finland has been high. In recent years there has been an increase in sales of less strong alcoholic drinks, such as beer, cider and wine. Experts estimate that there are up to half a million at-risk drinkers in Finland. Men drink alcohol more than women.
Drinking is more harmful to women and young people than to men, as women and young people usually weigh less than adult men. This is why a lower of alcohol is sufficient to be harmful and intoxicating. Being lighter in weight, the same amount of alcohol breaks down more slowly in a woman’s body. Because of this, alcohol harms the internal organs, such as the liver, for longer.
A woman’s body also contains less fluid than men’s. Because alcohol dissolves in water, the same amount of alcohol is sufficient to increase the blood alcohol level of women than with men.
Alcohol and tobacco
The drinking and smoking combination is particularly hazardous, as tobacco and alcohol multiply the effects of one another.
The combination of alcohol and tobacco significantly increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, and oesophagus. This is because alcohol facilitates the penetration of cells in the head and neck by harmful chemicals in tobacco
People who smoke and drink a lot are 10 to even 100 times more at risk of getting cancer compared to those who don’t drink or smoke.
There are over 200 diseases and disabilities linked to alcohol use. Apart from causing cancer, alcohol causes various other diseases of public health importance, such as cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes. Alcohol is responsible for a high number of accidents and traffic accidents. Alcohol use is a common cause of death.
Abundant alcohol use can bring about mental health problems or behavioural illnesses.
Alcohol prevents the absorption of a number of nutrients, such a vitamins A, B, C and D, and therefore the body’s ability to benefit from the. People who drink a lot may also have an unbalanced diet, meaning that their nutrient intake is anyway poor.
Finnish everyday life and celebrations often involve drinking alcohol. Sauna beers, wine on the sofa at home on Saturday evenings, or Friday at night partying are all the usual situations where people drink. Since we already know that alcohol is bad for your health, it makes sense to check your drinking habits.
Sometimes we feel under pressure to have a drink. This does not mean that we are offered drinks under duress but that we take them automatically. We think that alcohol goes together with certain occasions. But this isn’t so.
“Everyone who uses alcohol to some extent can cut down on their drinking.”
In times of crisis our drinking may increase. It’s important to bear in mind that we shouldn’t use alcohol for things it can’t help with.
Everyone who uses alcohol to some extent can cut down on their drinking. Doing so is always good for your health. In terms of the cancer risk, it makes no difference what alcoholic drinks you drink but how much you drink. Advice for minimising the risk of cancer due to alcohol is simple: The less you drink the lower the cancer risk.
Finnish recommendations for the use of alcohol have defined the limits of high and moderate risk. The high-risk limit is a danger limit. Under the recommendations, the use of alcoholic drinks should be limited so that women consume a maximum of a single unit per day and men up to two units.
The high-risk limit is reached when a man drinks 23 – 24 units of alcohol a week and a woman 12 – 16 units. The moderate risk limit is 14 units for men and 7 units for women.
Heavy drinking (over 5 – 6 units at a time) should be avoided. You should not drink alcohol every day.
As people get older, their tolerance to alcohol declines. A 60-year-old can tolerate only half the amount of alcohol that a 30-year-old can tolerate. Almost every pensioner takes at least one type of medicine the effectiveness of which is altered by alcohol.
Units of alcohol are calculated by converting the alcoholic content of drinks into pure alcohol.
One unit of alcohol is equivalent to
- 1 bottle of medium-strength beer (33 cl)
- 12 cl wine
- 4 cl spirits
When we consider the hazards of alcohol from the perspective of cancer, the safest unit level is zero.
Tips for cutting back on drinking
- Actively monitor your own drinking so that you do not find you have been drinking without noticing. You can keep a notebook on how much alcohol you drink in a week and compare you results with what is recommended.
- Also, consider the situations in which you drink. If you drink every day at the same time, think about how you can break the habit.
- When you drink, decide in advance how many units you intend to drink and stick with your decision.
- Cut back on tippling. There’s no need to have a glass of wine of a bottle beer each evening, or several evenings a week, after work. You can swap your sauna beer for a non-alcoholic thirst quencher.
- It’s easy to drink several units of alcohol at parties. Cut back on your unit intake by not exceeding the recommended amount. Take a small cider instead of a pint. Use smaller wine glasses.
- During the evening, you can switch to a non-alcoholic drink. A good way is to make every other drink you take a non-alcoholic one.
- Switch to a lighter drink or dilute your drinks.
- Drink slowly and take smaller sips.
- You can perfectly well refuse an offer of alcohol.
- At the shops, head for the soft-drinks shelves instead of those with alcoholic drinks. There are a wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks available.
- You can prepare a delicious drink from juice and fresh fruit, or frozen berries put through a blender.
- Bear in mind that by spending time at parties and weekday evenings without alcohol you are setting a good example to children.
If you wonder whether you are a problem drinker, you can get help from the AddictionLink website:
The benefits of cutting down on drinking
Cutting down on drinking or stopping altogether result in a number of health benefits and reduce the risk of many serious illnesses. Furthermore, when you drink less alcohol
- You sleep better
- You feel more lively in the mornings
- You get fewer calories, so you can lose weight
- Heartburn may be alleviated
- Your memory may start to improve
- Your sex life can improve
Foreign sources and information:
Alcohol, European Code Against Cancer, IARC
Alcohol and Cancer, American Cancer Society (pdf)
Alcohol and Cancer, Cancer Research UK
Alcohol and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute
Alcohol Consumption and the Risk of Cancer, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism