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Breast Cancer & Alcohol: How Much is Safe?

Nearly 5,000 breast cancer deaths a year may be attributable to just light drinking (up to one drink a day).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization body tasked with collating the totality of evidence as to whether or not something causes cancer, has now concluded that alcoholic beverages—all alcoholic beverages—are to be considered carcinogenic to humans.

There has been convincing evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of breast cancer, but most of the data were derived from studies that focused on the effect of moderate or high alcohol intakes, while little was known about light alcohol drinking (up to 1 drink/day). A recent meta-analysis of studies that compared light drinkers to non-drinkers found a moderate but significant association with breast cancer, based on the results of more than 100 studies.

The researchers estimate that about 5,000 breast cancer deaths a year are attributable to light drinking, meaning nearly 5,000 women that died of breast cancer maybe wouldn’t have if they had stayed away from alcohol completely, leading to an editorial in the medical journal Breast that concluded “women who consume alcohol chronically have an increased risk for breast cancer that is dose dependent but without threshold.” No threshold means there’s apparently no level of alcohol consumption that doesn’t raise breast cancer risk at least a little. Any level of alcohol consumption appears to increase the risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer. For example, the Harvard Nurses’ Study found that even consumption of less than a single drink per day may be associated with a modest increase in risk.

Most recent research has focused on acetaldehyde, the first and most toxic alcohol metabolite, as the primary cancer-causing agent. The bacteria in our mouths appear to oxidize alcohol into this acetaldehyde carcinogen, which we then swallow. So even a single sip of alcohol may be harmful. A new study found that just holding a teaspoon of hard liquor in your mouth for 5 seconds results in carcinogenic concentrations of acetaldehyde—even if you don’t swallow. The exposure continues for at least 10 min after spitting it out.

No surprise then alcohol-containing mouthwash can offer a carcinogenic spike as well. Researchers conclude: “All in all, there is a rather low margin of safety in the use of alcohol-containing mouthwash. Typical use will reach the concentration range above which adverse effects are to be expected. Until the establishment of a more solid scientific basis for a threshold level of acetaldehyde in saliva, prudent public health policy would recommend generally refraining from using alcohol in such products.”

So why isn’t the same recommendation made for alcoholic beverages? Well, as the Harvard paper concludes, “individuals will need to weigh the risks of light to moderate alcohol use on breast cancer development against the benefits for heart disease prevention to make the best personal choice regarding alcohol consumption.” They’re talking about the famous J shaped curve (watch the above video to check it out). While smoking is bad and more smoking is worse, and in general exercising is good and more exercise is better, for alcohol there appears to be a beneficial effect of small doses. A six-pack a day raises overall mortality, but so does teetotalling.

The #1 killer of women isn’t breast cancer, but heart disease, and a drink a day reduces the risk of heart disease. Why just reduce the risk of heart disease, though, when you may nearly eliminate the risk of heart disease with a healthy enough diet? See, for example, my video Eliminating the #1 Cause of Death. A plant-based diet that excludes certain plant-based (alcoholic) beverages may therefore be the best for overall longevity.

For more on this topic, please see my follow-up video Breast Cancer Risk: Red Wine vs. White Wine. I’ve also previously addressed the pros and cons in Alcohol Risks vs. Benefits.

The other mouthwash video I refer to in the above video is Don’t Use Antiseptic Mouthwash, part of a video series on improving athletic performance with nitrate-containing vegetables (if interested, start here: Doping With Beet Juice).

How else might one reduce breast cancer risk? Please feel free to check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my full 2012-2013 year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

Images thanks to zyphichore / Flickr

Related:
Flaxseeds for Breast Cancer Prevention
Mushrooms For Breast Cancer Prevention
Flaxseeds & Breast Cancer Survival

Read more: Health, Cancer, Diet & Nutrition, Drinks, Eating for Health, General Health, Heart & Vascular Disease, Videos, Women's Health, ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at NutritionFacts.org.

61 comments

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6:41PM PDT on Jul 10, 2013

Don't drink alcohols.

5:38PM PDT on Jul 8, 2013

Thank you for posting!

12:52AM PDT on Jul 8, 2013

Yikes! I didn't.know about the mouth bacteria changing the chemical component into such a toxic form. I wonder.where the study was done on alcohol & breast cancer? I hear French women drink read wine daily...2-3 glasses, & are some.of the healthiest women/culture around. Although organic red wine would be way healthier since it would.be free of all the nasty pesticides!

8:27AM PDT on Jul 5, 2013

Thank you for this very informative article...

7:58AM PDT on Jul 5, 2013

Thank you

6:18AM PDT on Jul 5, 2013

thank you

9:57PM PDT on Jul 4, 2013

Wow! Thanks! Didn't realise about the mouthwash!

7:43PM PDT on Jul 4, 2013

Thanks for the info. It's hard to believe wine once in a while can result in such dire consequences.

6:09PM PDT on Jul 4, 2013

Thanks for the info!! I quit drinking about 20 years ago.

5:13PM PDT on Jul 4, 2013

noted

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