Less alcohol equals better health
Posted on 6 January 2017
Many of us make New Year’s resolutions. If one of yours is to give up alcohol, then good for you! Here’s why it’s the one resolution you really should stick to.
If you’ve ever had a hangover you’ll know that it is an unpleasant experience. In terms of your health, there’s another type of hangover that’s caused by alcohol abuse – it increases your risk of developing cancer, liver disease, ulcers and even depression and obesity.
Sabine Jones gave up alcohol three years ago. She says, ‘I stopped drinking because I couldn’t handle the hangovers anymore. I also became aware of the additional health risks.’
The simple reason for a hangover is that alcohol literally poisons the body. The ethanol in alcohol is broken down into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde and other by-products, including potentially harmful oxygen radicals. The liver is mainly responsible for this job, however there are additional mechanisms by which this occurs. Acetaldehyde can lead to damage of cell DNA and impede the cells’ ability to repair that damage (Cancer Research UK).
How do cancers form?
As the cells of the body age or become damaged, they die off and new ones form in their place. It’s when this natural cycle of cell replacement breaks down that cancer develops – old, damaged or abnormal cells survive when they were supposed to die and new cells form where they’re not needed. These extra abnormal cells may divide without stopping and form tumours.
How do acetaldehyde and alcohol cause cancer?
Alcohol consumption has been linked to numerous different kinds of cancer including mouth, upper throat, breast, bowel and to a lesser degree oesophogus, larynx and liver – each caused in a different way (Cancer Research UK).
Acetaldehyde also causes liver cells to grow faster and these regenerating cells are more likely to detect changes in genes that could lead to cancer. ‘Cirrhosis of the liver, caused by chronic alcohol abuse, increases the risk of primary cancer of the liver by up to 40 times,’ says clinical oncology advisor Dr David Eedes.
Some hormones give the cells instructions on when to divide. Alcohol can increase the levels of hormones such as oestrogen, raising the risk of breast cancer.
Alcohol impairs the absorption of many of the B-vitamins. For example, people who drink alcohol tend to have lower levels of folate (B9) in their blood. Folate is important to help cells produce new DNA and for normal cell division. Studies also show lower absorption of vitamins B1 (involved in DNA production and nerve function) and B12 (essential in the production of blood cells, nerve sheath and the metabolism of proteins, fat and carbohydrates).
Alcohol can produce molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cells, which can damage DNA and in turn may cause cancer to develop.
Why do smoking and drinking together increase the cancer risk?
‘Smoking and drinking together form a dangerous combination. Adding tobacco to alcohol increases the dangers of developing certain cancers, especially of the mouth, throat, gullet and stomach,’ says Dr Eedes. Tobacco and alcohol work in tandem to damage cells, for instance, alcohol makes it easier for the mouth and throat to absorb the cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes.
Isn’t a glass of red wine a day good?
Some studies have suggested that consuming a limited amount of alcohol may be good for heart health, but these findings have recently been called into question. ‘There’s no real consensus as to how much alcohol is safe,’ says Dr Eedes. Also, research has shown that drinking alcohol increases the cancer risk no matter whether you binge-drink or drink more sensibly.
Am I safe from cancer if I only drink beer?
‘There’s no proof that one type of drink is better than another – spirits versus wine versus beer,’ says Dr Eedes. ‘We do know that in South Africa, home-brewed beers often have noxious additives and are particularly dangerous.’
I want to quit but I’m finding it hard – what must I do?
‘Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive,’ says Dr Eedes. ‘Chronic alcohol abuse is often a combination of addiction and underlying emotional issues and that’s why it’s so difficult to quit.’ If you’re battling, you should get professional help.
Are there health benefits to quitting drinking besides lowering my cancer risk?
Yes, there are many. ‘Weight loss, improved liver function, greater emotional stability and lower risk of being involved in other risky behaviour that may compromise your health, such as drugs, unsafe sex and drunk driving,’ says Dr Eedes.
Sabine says this is in line with her experience. ‘I sleep better, I eat better, my concentration is vastly improved and I have much more energy for activities that make me and my loved ones happy. My only regret is that I didn’t stop sooner!’