Happy New Year!!
January is the month where New Year's resolutions are made...and broken. We all want to get fit, eat healthier and improve our wellbeing. A brilliant campaign that combines fundraising, awareness and improving your health is Dry January. Many charities encourage people to stop drinking alcohol for one month in order to raise awareness about a number of different diseases linked to alcohol consumption.
Since I am a cancer researcher (in case you haven't noticed) I am going to talk to you about how alcohol can increase your risk of cancer and why moderation is always key!
What is alcohol?
What do I mean by alcohol increasing risk and does this change depending on the type of drink? Are light beers better for you compared to vodka?
So what is alcohol? Well interestingly alcohols are not the beverages we think of but a group of chemicals all sharing similar properties (they all contain CH3OH). So methanol, ethanol and propanol are all members of the same alcohol family. When we talk about the beverage "alcohol" we are talking about ethanol. Now 100% ethanol is extremely toxic and flammable. You should NEVER drink 100% ethanol, the majority of alcoholic beverages range between 2% - 40%. For reference, I use 70% ethanol to clean my TC hood to remove cells and microbes to maintain the sterility of TC. Actually in the lab we use ethanol for a number of things including "washing" DNA. The way we extract DNA means there are chemicals mixed up with the DNA (like isopropanol). We want our DNA to be as pure as possible so to get rid of those chemicals we "wash" the DNA (in the form of a pellet) with 70-80% ethanol and allow the residual ethanol to evaporate off, leaving us some (hopefully) pure DNA.
Alcohol increases cancer risk and incidence of cancer:
Alcohol has been shown to increase the risk and actually cause seven different cancer types (shown below), but has been implicated in more cancer types. In fact when we talk about the major risk factors for any cancers the top three is always age, BMI and alcohol consumption.
The impact of alcohol on cancer depends on the cancer type, for example studies have shown that if a woman drinks 1.5 units a day her risk of breast cancer increases by 5%. Now that doesn't seem like a lot but that percentage increases the more your drink. The risk for cancers such as liver or mouth cancer have a far higher increased risk of cancer with just 1.5 units a day (liver cancer is 16%).
How does Alcohol cause Cancer?
Alcohol is classified as a carcinogen (since 1988 by IARC). Carcinogens are substances that cause damage to any part of a living cell. Alcohol is metabolised in the cell to acetaldehyde and this has the carcinogenic properties. There are a number of ways alcohol can cause cancer:
As I've talked about before, cancer in general is an accumulation of small changes to normal biological pathways such as DNA damage, changes in hormone levels, changes in nutrient levels and over activation of certain pathways. This all contributes to the cells becoming cancerous. Alcohol can generate and help increase these pathways, making it easier for cells to become cancerous. In fact alcohol actually increase risk further when combined with smoking (something people commonly do when they drink). This is because cigarettes contain other carcinogens which also damage DNA etc. So you're getting a double hit of damage at once.
What is the recommended intake of alcohol?
We hear a lot about the "recommended units of alcohol" per person, per week. But what is that?
Well first of all a "unit" is a measurement which depends on percentage alcohol and volume of the liquid. So the unit depends on the type of alcohol you're drinking, for example 1 unit of spirits is 25ml volume of 40% alcohol but 1 unit of beer is about 225ml of 4% alcohol.
The new guidelines (released a couple of years ago) recommend that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week BUT stipulates this must be spread over at least THREE DAYS. Meaning for example you can have 6 glasses of wine a week but you can only have four glasses max in one day. This is to try reduce binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined by the Office of National Statistics as over 8 units of alcohol for men in a single sitting (about 3 pints) or 6 units for women in a single sitting (about 2.5 glasses of wine) or drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time.
The take home message:
It's all about moderation! If you enjoy a glass of wine in the evening that's fine but maybe one day of the week you don't have that glass of wine! It's important to be aware of the volume you are drinking. Pints are easier because pint glasses are standardised but wine glasses can come in different shapes and sizes. How do you know you're drinking 175ml?
It's also about feeling better and improving your overall health. Alcohol is not just linked to cancer but other diseases like cardiovascular disease. Alcohol can also contribute to weight gain, especially high sugar drinks like larger, cider and/or wine. Ask anyone who has done Dry January before and they will tell you how good they feel, even after just a few weeks.
I'm not preaching here. I'm not saying GIVE UP ALCOHOL NOW! I enjoy a drink but I don't drink very often as a choice.
What I am suggesting that maybe reducing you alcohol intake could improve your health and overall lifestyle for the better. January is the month to try it out while you're surrounded by other "designated drivers", see how it benefits your health (and your pocket).
If you want to become a Dryathlete or just find out more about the campaigns you can visit:
My name is Caitriona and I am a PhD student at Imperial College London, UK.