One drink a day may increase cancer risk, but this expert says you don’t need to stop

Red wine lovers have long touted research that the beverage has the power to destroy cancerous cells. While the thought may be comforting, a new study from Japan is poking a hole in the idea that drinking alcohol fights cancer — and providing evidence that it may increase your risk of cancer instead.

Published in the journal Cancer on Monday, the study uses hospital data in Japan to compare the drinking habits of over 63,232 cancer patients and 63,232 non-cancer patients. After controlling for factors like sex and age, the researchers found that individuals who drank one drink a night for 10 years or two drinks a night for five years were 5 percent more likely to get a variety of cancers, including gastrointestinal, breast and prostate. One drink was defined as a single glass of wine, two-ounces of whiskey or 17-ounces of beer.

Although the study does not explore the reason alcohol may increase cancer risk, the researchers cite existing data that suggests it may have to do with hormones. According to the National Cancer Institute, scientists are still working to figure out the mechanism that causes alcohol to elevate cancer risk. Two of the leading theories are that metabolizing alcohol leads to toxic chemicals in the body and that the consumption of it impairs “the body’s ability to break down and absorb a variety of nutrients that are associated with cancer risk,” such as vitamin A and vitamin E.

The lead author of the study, Masayoshi Zaitsu, MD, PhD, of The University of Tokyo and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that the study is crucial for the people of Japan, where cancer remains the leading cause of death. “We observed modest alcohol‐related cancer risk in the most common types (colorectal, stomach, breast, prostate, and liver cancers) even at light to moderate levels of lifetime alcohol consumption in Japan,” Zaitsu wrote in the study. “Thus, given the current burden of overall cancer incidence, we should further encourage promoting public education about alcohol‐related cancer risk.”

Experts in the U.S. agree. Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells Yahoo Lifestyle the study builds on earlier research. “There have been studies around for quite some time that suggest that there's an association,” White says. “But I think that the amount of evidence finally hit a tipping point a couple of years ago and there have been several large epidemiological studies finding this pattern. I think it’s pretty clear now that it is a cancer-causing agent.”

White says that while moderate consumption of alcohol has been shown to decrease risk of heart attack, other reports about potential health benefits are likely unfounded. “For a long time it looked like there might be some benefits to small amounts of alcohol and that perhaps it mattered what source your alcohol came from,” says White. “And there really doesn't appear to be much benefit to alcohol. The only finding that still holds is that moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with a reduced risk of a heart attack.”

In terms of other physical benefits of alcohol, White says there are very few. But while the study may be alarming to those who enjoy a nightly glass of wine or beer, he doesn’t suggest that stopping drinking entirely is necessary. “I think the important thing we're learning here is that even at relatively low levels of consumption, alcohol is not benign,” White tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But you just have to make the choice about drinking like you would other choices that affect your health — like how much we eat and when.”

White adds that doing things that make you happy can also add to your wellbeing. “It could be that, for you, that glass of wine with dinner is just really relaxing and you really enjoy it. That's beneficial,” he says. “You really need to make careful choices about how much alcohol you consume. It doesn't mean that people should avoid drinking if you want to drink.”

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