Health Column: Alcohol consumption adds to cancer risk

By Karen Collins

The American Institute for Cancer Research provides answers to questions about the relationship between cancer and your diet.
Q: Has the advice about alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk changed?
A: Overall, studies seem to be confirming earlier advice from the American Institute for Cancer Research that alcohol consumption should be minimized to reduce breast cancer risk. Most official advice states that women should drink “no more than one standard alcoholic drink per day,” with the understanding that even this amount does pose some breast cancer risk. A recent study of breast cancer survivors found that women drinking three or more standard alcoholic drinks per week had a 35 percent increased risk of recurrence compared to nondrinkers.
Alcohol may affect some women more than others. For example, women with low vegetable and fruit consumption could be at more risk from alcohol. Their resulting low consumption of antioxidants and the B vitamin folate leaves them vulnerable to the folate-depleting effects of alcohol and less able to repair the DNA damage from the free radicals that form as alcohol is metabolized. Alcohol particularly increases risk of the common estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers, which may be why postmenopausal women who are overweight or obese (and thus generally have higher estrogen levels) seem to show more alcohol-related risk in some studies. Overall, studies suggest a small increase in breast cancer risk with one standard alcoholic drink per day — 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Risk increases with higher consumption. That said, when it comes to postmenopausal breast cancer, a healthy weight and regular physical activity are protective, so don’t lose sight of those targets in your strategy to lower breast cancer risk.
Q: I know I should be more physically active, but I just don’t have the energy. What can I do?
A: If you’re chronically low on energy, talk with your doctor since this may be a sign of anemia, a thyroid disorder, medication side effect or another health problem that can be treated.
It’s ironic — once you get more physically active, increased fitness and improved sleep will probably leave you feeling more energetic. It’s getting started that’s the energy challenge. Start slowly; for those who are currently sedentary, that might mean just 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Move at a speed and intensity that doesn’t leave you out of breath. Aim to feel energized, not exhausted, when you’re done. Gradually increase your time or speed a little each week. In the DREW study of overweight, sedentary older women, even 25 minutes of modest walking for exercise three days a week was enough to significantly boost feelings of energy; those who walked for an hour three times a week increased energy even more.

Karen Collins is a registered dietician and certified nutritionist with The American Institute for Cancer Research, the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk.