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Cancer Prevention and Heart Health — What Role Does Alcohol Play?

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Date: February 01, 2023
Category: Prevention

February is Cancer Prevention Month and Heart Health Month. Many people are aware of risks (such as tobacco, unhealthy foods and beverages, and lack of exercise) for cancer and heart disease. Do you also know about the risks posed by alcohol?

Alcohol

We know that drinking too much can harm your health.1 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that if adults (age 21 and older) choose to drink alcohol, drinking less is better for health than drinking more.

Cancer

There is strong scientific consensus that drinking alcohol can cause several types of cancer (including mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon and rectum cancers).2,3

Use of both alcohol and tobacco greatly increases the risks of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box, and esophagus.3 

  • The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of an alcohol-associated cancer.

  • The more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Cancer Risk?

Your body breaks down alcohol by converting it to acetaldehyde. This chemical can damage your DNA. That can lead to cancerous tumors. 3

In addition:

  • Alcohol generates free radicals, which can damage your DNA.

  • Alcohol impairs your body’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients.

  • Alcohol increases the level of estrogen in your blood.

Some people have suggested that substances in red wine, such as resveratrol, have anti-cancer properties. However, there’s no evidence that drinking red wine reduces the risk of cancer.2

Heart Disease

Drinking a lot over a long time (or too much on a single occasion) can damage your heart.4,5 

  • Binge drinking and long-term drinking can affect how quickly your heart beats.

  • Binge drinking and chronic alcohol misuse can cause high blood pressure.

  • Long-term heavy drinking can weaken the heart muscle, so that not enough blood is pumped to your organs, depriving the organs of oxygen.

  • Binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can lead to strokes, even in people without heart disease. Also, alcohol worsens the problems that often lead to strokes, including high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythm, and heart muscle problems.

Prevention

Maintaining overall health includes moderating any use of alcohol, eliminating tobacco, eating healthy foods, exercising, getting adequate sleep, and taking time for mental health and well-being.

Here’s some tips to help moderate alcohol:6,7 

  • Choose not to drink too much yourself, and help others do the same.
  • Set a daily and weekly drinking limit. Write it down.
  • Record how much you drink each day.
  • Avoid situations and triggers that cause you to drink.
  • Ask a friend to help you stay within your limit.
  • Talk with your doctor about your alcohol use.

Try out these tools:

You and your community can put in place evidence-based community strategies to create social and physical environments that help prevent excessive alcohol use.6

Resources

In support of advancing the behavioral health of the nation (including prevention of substance misuse), SAMHSA offers helplines and treatment locators, practitioner training, public messages, grants, data, programs, and publications. This includes:

There are many actions that we can take — as individuals, families, communities, and as a nation — to promote cancer prevention, heart health, and overall health. Let’s not forget to consider the role of alcohol.


1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use and Your Health (PDF | 368 KB).

2National Cancer Institute. Alcohol.

3National Cancer Institute. Alcohol and Cancer Risk.

4National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.

5National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and You: An Interactive Body.

6Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Excessive Alcohol Use.

7National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Rethinking Drinking