With women drinking more alcohol, experts worry about the effect on cancer risk

drinking alcohol
Research has found that alcohol's negative effects harm women more than men, which is especially worrisome considering other trends that show women today are drinking more than ever.

Conflicting findings on the effects of alcohol may have you scratching your head. On the one hand, research suggests that low to moderate drinking may lower the risk of heart disease in some people. On the other hand, there is evidence that drinking even small amounts of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of liver disease, memory loss, brain damage and certain types of cancer, including head and neck, liver, esophageal, colorectal and, especially, breast cancer. But the research largely agrees on one key point: Alcohol’s negative effects harm women more than men, which is especially worrisome considering other trends that show women today are drinking more than ever.

It’s problematic because women have heard that drinking some alcohol may help them prevent cardiovascular risk. But it’s more important for them to know that even four drinks a week can increase their risk of breast cancer.” - Anthony Perre, MD, Chief, CTCA Division of Outpatient Medicine

How do women process alcohol differently from men?

Women on average are smaller than men, so a woman’s body typically absorbs more alcohol and takes longer to break it down than a man’s. That leaves women more at risk for alcohol’s long-term effects, such as liver damage and cardiovascular disease. Even though low to moderate drinking may help protect the heart from the damaging effects of free radicals in the body, drinking too much alcohol may lead to high blood pressure and heart failure. Because of the dangers associated with drinking, including cancer risk, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that those who drink alcohol do so in moderation—an average of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. The AHA also recommends that if you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start because the risks outweigh the potential cardiovascular benefits.

This is especially true because cancer risk increases with the amount of alcohol you drink. According to a May report from the American Institute for Cancer Research, one daily glass of wine or other alcoholic drink significantly raises the risk of breast cancer in women. Drinking one small glass of wine, beer or other alcoholic drink a day—or about 10 grams of alcohol—increases the risk of breast cancer by 5 percent in pre-menopausal women and 9 percent in post-menopausal women. Women who have two to three alcoholic drinks a day have a 20 percent higher breast cancer risk compared to women who don’t drink.

How does alcohol raise cancer risk?

Alcohol may raise cancer risk because it contains ethanol and acetaldehyde, which are chemicals that damage the DNA of healthy cells. Alcohol also may affect the breakdown of estrogen, causing more estrogen to build up in the body. Women with more than normal levels of estrogen may have an increased risk of developing breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. Because alcoholic drinks are often high in calories and may cause weight gain, alcohol may also raise cancer risk by leading to obesity, which has been linked to 13 types of cancer.

The health dangers come amid 21st century statistics showing that women are drinking more than ever—especially white women ages 35 to 54, whose rate of alcohol-related deaths has more than doubled since 1999. Experts worry that the trend points to a looming health crisis, and that women’s risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer, will rise exponentially. “There really is no such thing as non-risky drinking when it comes to cancer,” Dr. Perre says. “Even moderate drinking can raise the risk of breast cancer and other cancers. So women with other risk factors for cancer, especially breast cancer, should cut down on how much they drink, or stop completely.”

Learn more about how drinking alcohol may raise your cancer risk.