Reduce alcohol consumption, say new guidelines
Even people who drink limited amounts of alcohol have a higher risk of many types of cancer than those who never drink.
The guidelines, based on findings of research worldwide, aim to decrease the risk of mortality from cancers and other diseases.
When the original guidelines were published in 1995, the links between alcohol and cancer were not fully understood.
Now, however, new evidence shows that the risks start from any level of regular drinking, and the more one drinks, the higher the risk.
According to the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), alcohol contributes to over 60 medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Approximately 1 in 20 of all new cancers in the UK stem from alcohol consumption.
Contributing to the guidelines, the UK’s Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) says that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases the risk of some cancers, compared with people who do not drink at all.
The risk of developing some alcohol-related cancers reduces over time when people stop drinking, but it can take many years to return to the levels found in people who have never drunk alcohol.
Lower limits for men’s consumption
The current review has also found that the benefits of alcohol for heart health only apply for women aged 55 and over, and these women should limit their intake to around 5 units a week – or the equivalent of around two standard glasses of wine.
Drinking alcohol can increase women’s risk of mouth, throat and breast cancer. The recommended upper limit of consumption for women remains at 14 units per week.
However, where men were previously advised not to exceed 21 units a week, that limit has now dropped to 14 units, or around 6 pints of average-strength beer. In the UK, men account for 65% of alcohol-related deaths.
People are also being advised not to “save up” the 14 units for 1-2 days, but to spread them over 3 or more days. Having several alcohol-free days a week is suggested as a way to reduce intake.
Having one to two heavy drinking sessions each week increases the risk of death from long-term illnesses, as well as accidents and injuries.
Pregnant women should avoid all alcohol
Pregnant women are now being told to avoid all alcohol; no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy.
The previous advice to limit intake to 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice per week has been removed to provide greater clarity as a precaution.
Fast facts about alcohol
- In the US, a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of alcohol
- This is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer at 5% alcohol content, 5 ounces of wine at 12% or 1.5 ounces of liquor at 40%
- “Heaving drinking” is defined as eight drinks or more a week for women and fifteen or more for men.
Learn more about alcoholism
Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England wants pregnant women to understand that they should avoid alcohol as a precaution.
While small amounts of alcohol consumed before becoming aware of the pregnancy present a low risk to the baby, Dame Sally insists that there is no “safe” level of alcohol for pregnant women to drink.
New advice on single episodes of drinking includes limiting the total amount of alcohol consumed on any one occasion and drinking slowly. People are also advised to consume food while drinking and to drink water alternately with alcohol.
Since the short-term risks for individuals vary widely, guidance about a set number of units for a single occasion or day are not currently included in the guidelines.
Those who should be particularly careful include young adults, older people, those with low body weight or other health problems, and those using medicines or other drugs.
The aim of the guidelines, she says, is to provide the latest and most up-to-date scientific information so that people can make informed decisions about their own drinking and the level of risk they are prepared to take.
Dame Sally says:
“Drinking any level of alcohol regularly carries a health risk for anyone, but if men and women limit their intake to no more than 14 units a week, it keeps the risk of illness like cancer and liver disease low.”
Medical News Today recently reported that binge drinking damages the liver more than previously thought.