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Is it time to rethink how much you drink?

New evidence shows one out of seven of all new cancer cases in 2020 were related to one to two drinks daily.

Has an occasional glass of wine on the weekend turned into one or two a night during the pandemic? Do you have a regular happy hour to unwind after work? Or daily beer after being on the hill? 

If so, you likely aren't alone, but you may want to consider a resolution to cut down in 2022. 

While previously, the thought was a little alcohol couldn't hurt you, research is showing that is not the case. 

"Now, with the new evidence, it's actually showing one out of seven of all new cancer cases in 2020 — worldwide 100,000 new cancer cases — are for people who just drink light to moderate. So, one to two drinks daily," said Sandra Gentleman, registered dietitian with BC Cancer. "Basically with alcohol, there's no safe level for cancer risk."

Gentleman explained that alcohol can raise the circulating estrogen levels in the bloodstream. That increases the risk of hormone-related cancers like breast and ovarian and endometrial, for example. 

"All the risks of cancer go up with any alcohol,” she said. “Why that happens is ethanol in alcohol breaks down to a known carcinogen that damages the DNA. It's called acetaldehyde and that's the carcinogen that is in the bloodstream when your body's breaking down the alcohol, and then that damages the DNA. And it also impairs the body's ability to break down and absorb important good nutrients that protect against cancer."

The body is trying hard to remove alcohol from the blood. That's its priority because it's a carcinogen, she explained. 

And so then your liver isn't working on other things, such as reducing your cholesterol, for example. 

Along with this new research showing the connection between alcohol and cancer, other studies show that the pandemic has led to more drinking. 

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that in 2020, one in three respondents who use alcohol reported increased use and one in five reported problematic use. 

Gentleman said the concern is that new habits of drinking may be forming that last beyond the temporary stress of dealing with the pandemic.

Tips to cut down

Gentleman said those who like a drink after work could swap some alcoholic drinks out for a mocktail or a spritzer or a near-beer. 

If drinking at night is for self-care, perhaps switching to a bath, book or yoga is an option, she said. 

If drinking red wine at night is aimed at increasing your iron, eating meats — chicken, fish — or nuts and seeds and whole grains, alongside a vitamin C-rich food such as broccoli or peppers, that will help your gut absorb the iron and is a healthier alternative to alcohol. 

"So, for instance, if you had, like, a spaghetti meal, you've got a good source of iron in the noodles. And then you've got the tomato sauce, [which] is rich in vitamin C. And then also if you have some meat in there — chicken or something — then that's got a good, good amount of iron too and you'll absorb it," she said. 

If you drink red wine because you think it helps your heart, swap the red wine for blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, any of the foods that have bright colours, such as eggplant, red cabbage or even cauliflower. 

She acknowledged that during the pandemic most of us are already feeling like we can't do a lot of things we want to, so she noted she isn't saying never have a drink. Instead, she is saying wherever your baseline is, try to reduce the amount.

"It's more just being aware that there's no safe level of alcohol. It's just like candy. I mean, you're going to eat it anyway, sometimes, but you know it's not good for you. It's not doing anything [good], but it's a treat. And the same with alcohol," she said, adding that knowledge is power. 

"If you know that... you have a family history of cancer — hormonal cancers, or liver and esophageal and head neck, oral, pancreatic — .... your risk goes up a little bit more when you do drink."

Pluses to tapping out

Not drinking as much can also have more immediate benefits, she said. 

You get a better deep and REM sleep, for example, when you don't drink alcohol.

Drinking less alcohol will also help with energy levels during the day and can help manage weight. 

"There are calories in the alcohol, but then, also, when you're drinking, the inhibitions go down, and so you might overeat in the evening," she said. "That affects your weight gain, and that increases your cancer risk, too. So, I mean, definitely, there's all a ripple effect, and it's all connected."

Being at the start of a new year is a good opportunity to reassess alcohol use, she said. 

"It's a good time to rethink your habits, and this is one of them. Because if we're looking at long-term health and having a good immune system and being strong and healthy, this is one aspect," she said. 

For more on alcohol and cancer, go to BC Cancer.