How does alcohol increase the risk of cancer?

Thank you for your responses to last week’s Health-e-Byte about alcohol, cancer and brain shrinkage. It’s great that you want more details, so here are my answers to your questions.

How does alcohol increase the risk of cancer?

The liver breaks down alcohol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, which damages DNA and drives uncontrolled cell growth leading to cancer.

Acetaldehyde is subsequently metabolised to acetate by an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). As many as one third of East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese) are likely to have a deficit of this enzyme which means it takes them longer to rid their body of acetaldehyde. This is bad news because the longer you have acetaldehyde in your system, the higher your risk of cancer.

In addition to being a carcinogen, acetaldehyde causes a condition known as ‘alcohol flushing syndrome’. This is characterised by facial flushing, nausea and tachycardia (an abnormally rapid heart rate). If this describes you, it means you’re at an even higher risk of alcohol-induced cancer than the rest of the population because it’s an indication you have lower levels of the enzyme ALDH2.

To what degree does alcohol increase the risk of dementia?

A study involving identical twins found that consuming more than 40 grams of alcohol per WEEK (4 standard drinks in Australia and 3 standard drinks in the US) per WEEK — not per day — tripled the risk of dementia. That’s a massive blow to the brain from what many people would consider a very small amount of wine. Combine the alcohol with a high sugar diet and you’re on a bullet train to dementia.

If a person consumes more than 30 grams of alcohol per DAY (3 standard drinks or 300 mL of wine) they need to take a vitamin B1 (thiamine)supplement because they will become B1 deficient and B1 deficiency puts a person at risk for a specific type of dementia called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).

Meanwhile, one night of binge drinking reduces the ability to perform complex memory tasks for as long as four days later.

Is alcohol more damaging for women than for men?

Yes, alcohol is more damaging for women because they have smaller amounts of an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) in their stomach. The more ADH a person has, the more alcohol is broken down in their gut, and the less alcohol they absorb. It’s a mystery why men have more of this enzyme than women.

In addition, for the same height and weight, men have a higher percentage of body water due to their greater musculature than women. Since alcohol dissolves in water, and women have less water, it is more concentrated in a woman’s body than a man’s. The higher the concentration of alcohol, the greater the damage it exerts.

This may be a reason why Alzheimer’s is more common in women than in men: drinking the same amount results in higher levels of alcohol reaching their brain.

How do you become a non-drinker in culture that uses alcohol for every conceivable occasion?  

This is exactly the question that Sarah Rusbatch answers in her empathic and practical book Beyond Booze. Sarah leaves no stone unturned when it comes to breaking through the barriers to cutting down on alcohol. She explores the root causes, asks the tough questions and provides lasting and life-enriching solutions.

To learn more about Sarah and Beyond Booze visit

The read the other HEB in this series click below.

The more you drink, the more you shrink

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