Alcohol can be quite bad for living things. Give it to plants, they shrivel up. Put bacteria in it and they die. Put an octopus in it, and it will struggle with all its life to get out. But humans? Well gosh, we actively seek it out to have a party.
Until recently, the perception was that alcohol in small quantities was harmless for humans. I mean, we do drink a lot of it, don’t we? But new research from the British Medical Journal now indicates otherwise, especially for women. The authors of the new work combined and analyzed data from two previous studies containing information from over 100,000 adults in the United States, looking at risk factors for a wide range of cancers. What they found was a significant increase in the risk of mouth, throat, gullet, bowel, liver, and breast cancers for women who participated in regular light drinking. The increase in breast cancer risk was particularly pronounced. For men, the risk increase was only significant when smoking was combined with light drinking.
What each country defines as light drinking is sometimes a little different. In the United States and in this study, light drinking for women is considered to be a small glass of wine per day. Light drinking for men is more like two glasses of wine or two bottles of beer. Current recommendations from health bureaus across the globe consider this amount to be safe but this new research puts that recommendation in doubt.
So how exactly might alcohol cause or contribute to cancer? Alcohol itself, ethanol, can pass right through the membranes of our body as soon as we drink it. This means the alcohol in our mouth and throat starts to enter the bloodstream immediately through the skin, even before it arrives in the stomach. This free mobility allows alcohol to interfere easily with our brain functions. Anyone who has had a good night out should know this. In order to protect the brain, our liver is primarily responsible for trying to deal with the alcohol we consume. The liver performs its protective duties by converting the alcohol in our blood into a compound called acetylaldehyde. This compound does NOT interfere with our brain’s function and can eventually be used as a source of energy. Kind of smart, right?
The problem with acetylaldehyde is that it is still mildly poisonous, especially when introduced into the body repeatedly over a long period of time. In fact, acetylaldehyde is poisonous in a cancer-promoting fashion. This compound appears to promote cancer in two ways (I say “appears” because the mechanism is largely speculated from a large body of correlative data rather than from a direct test; nevertheless, I think the conclusion is highly likely to be correct). The first thing acetylaldehyde does is damage tissues, promoting cells to have to regenerate frequently. This chronic damage enhances the probability that cells will grow in an unregulated fashion, resulting in cancer. The second thing acetylaldehyde is known to do is damage DNA directly. This damage likely can cause the mutations that result in cancer. So essentially, our liver is converting one poison that will kill us quickly into another that can kill us slowly over time.
Since the readership of this column contains a large Asian population, I want to make an additional comment that is especially relevant to you. In addition to promoting cancer, acetylaldehyde is also the compound that makes our faces flush red when we drink too much. This flushing occurs because the acetylaldehyde is promoting an irritation response. It is a fairly well known fact that Asians on average flush more than their Caucasian counterparts. The main reason for this is because Asians are actually genetically predisposed to accumulate larger quantities of acetylaldehyde in their blood.
This accumulation is speculated to have given Asians greater immunity against blood-borne parasites when the ancestors of Asian populations were migrating through the jungle territories of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia thousands of years of ago (acetylaldehyde can kill these parasites). The problem with this accumulation is, of course, that it might significantly increase cancer risk, particularly in women. Because the two studies described in this article were done in the United States, the adult subjects are primarily Caucasian, leaving open the question of whether these racial differences may result in a corresponding difference in cancer rate between the two groups. Cheers, everyone.
Or maybe not.
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