There's likely no other area of research that has prompted as much confusion in the public as the potential effects of alcohol on your health. On one side, you have evidence that suggests that alcohol can be good in certain instances, while on the other, there's evidence that suggests that it's bad.
Of course, the key factor in these studies is the type and amount of alcohol consumed, as well as the lifestyle habits that may or may not go with it.
Now, there's a new study in the journal Addiction and it's clearly in the anti-alcohol camp, as it suggests that alcohol is not only linked to, but may actually cause seven types of cancer — with even moderate drinking presenting a higher risk.
The study, led by Jennie Connor of the University of Otago, in New Zealand, looked at a number of long-term studies from the past decade by the World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, among others, and in doing so, it was found out that alcohol consumption was regularly linked to cancers in the head, neck, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum and breasts for women.
"There is strong evidence that alcohol causes cancer at seven sites and probably others," says Connor.
And with that said, that's the key with this study: "strong evidence." The study doesn't definitively prove that drinking alcohol, regardless of whether it is wine, beer or hard liquor, is the cause of these cancers, just that when taken together, existing literature on the subject comes as close to showing causation as one can, which could possibly encourage some people to cut back on their alcohol intake.
So what is this evidence? Connor notes that while everything hasn't been mapped out, the mechanisms by which alcohol causes cancer is specific to the target organ. For example, for cancers of the head, neck, esophagus and liver, complications might arise due to DNA damage from acetaldehyde, a metabolite of alcohol and a carcinogen. Meanwhile, for breast cancer, alcohol is known to increase levels of reproductive hormones, like estrogen, which causes cellular proliferation and thus, increasing the risk of cancer.
Interestingly, the study also touched upon the relationship of alcohol and smoking, stating that the risk of certain mouth and throat cancers was even higher among people who both smoked and drank alcohol. Of course, the dangers of smoking have been known for quite some time, so this revelation only adds on to the many other risks that have been documented ages ago.
So where does this leave us? In a very awkward spot, unfortunately. For quite some time, studies have provided the public with conflicting information about the effects of alcohol on our health. Whereas some studies have suggested that a little alcohol is healthy, with a few experts going so far as to recommend that abstinent people have a drink at dinner to partake in these benefits, others have suggested that we limit our alcohol consumption almost to the point of not drinking it altogether. In fact, a study published in March suggested that even small levels of alcohol in women can increase the risk of breast cancer.
In the meantime, this research will likely tilt things in the anti-alcohol side's favor, but things are only bound to get more complicated from here.
"Ongoing research will elucidate mechanisms more clearly and increase confidence in the epidemiology," says Connor. "At the same time there will be orchestrated attempts to discredit the science and the researchers, and to confuse the public. The stakes are high for alcohol industries when there is no argument, on current evidence, for a safe level of drinking with respect to cancer."
And, of course, there's the most important part of this: us the public. Sure, alcohol could cause cancer, but as the past has shown, that possibility certainly won't stop us.