11/14/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

The Alcohol and Cancer Link: Can One Drink a Day Increase Your Risk?

By now, everyone has heard about the benefits of red wine -- that it's packed with heart-healthy antioxidants and resveratrol, which may reduce bad cholesterol and help prevent blood clots. [1] But, as doctors have long known, drinking alcohol is associated with increased cancer risk. The Million Women study, which followed the behaviors, lifestyles and reproductive habits of women over the course of a seven-year period, found that 13 percent of certain cancers were linked to alcohol use. [2] Women who were heavy drinkers were more likely to be affected. The cancers linked to alcohol use included: mouth, throat, esophagus, breast, liver and rectal.

Certain types of cancer are more pervasive depending on one's alcohol habits. For example, mouth cancer affects up to 70 percent of heavy alcohol drinkers. Those imbibing five or more alcoholic drinks per day are more likely to suffer from cancers of the upper digestive tract. Three or more drinks per day can increase cancer risk by up to 41 percent in men, and two or more drinks per day increases the risk by 20 percent in women.

With news like this, it's understandable that some people might rush to clear out their liquor cabinets and completely abstain from even "one more drink." The key, however, is knowing that cancer deaths linked to alcohol overall is quite small -- an estimated 2 to 4 percent. But it's still worth noting that these deaths could have been prevented just by enjoying alcohol in moderation.

Doctors have long known the benefits of drinking a glass of red wine. It appears to be good for the heart, and promising research has been done into resveratrol. However, the resveratrol studies have so far only been performed on mice -- not humans. [3] To get the measured benefits of resveratrol noted in the studies, you would have to drink 15 gallons of red wine every day! There are also noted benefits found in the alcohol itself, such as a 25-40 percent decrease in cardiovascular diseases with moderate drinking. [4] These specific conditions include: peripheral vascular disease, ischemic stroke (caused by a blood clot), sudden cardiac death and other cardiovascular issues. Moderate amounts of alcohol also raise the body's "good" cholesterol. There are also the social aspects, such as drinking with friends or a stress-relieving drink at the end of a hard day of work. [5]

The specific type of alcohol involved in reducing cardiovascular risk does not seem to matter -- beer, wine, vodka and other types all seem to bestow the same effects. With this in mind, though, what are the best ways to drink in moderation safely?

• Time Frame Matters -- Someone who has 5-7 drinks on a Friday night might think they're getting the same benefits as someone who has one drink a day (if they can think straight at all!), but binging on alcohol can have the opposite effect, including liver and other organ damage. Spread out your alcohol consumption over a longer time period rather than guzzling it all at once.

• Drink With a Meal -- Having food in your stomach slows the rate of alcohol absorption, which is why more people feel hungover after drinking on an empty stomach. Drinking before a meal may also aid digestion.

• Know Your Risks -- If you have a family history of breast cancer, for example, it's probably not a good idea to hit the bottle often. Understand the genetic links between alcoholism and cancer risk as it applies to your unique makeup.

• Talk to Your Doctor -- Don't be embarrassed to talk to your doctor about your drinking habits. Certain prescription and over-the-counter medications can interact with alcohol and lead to severe side effects. Tell your doctor how many drinks you have per day (on average) and ask whether or not this may affect the medicines you're taking.

Knowing the risks and benefits of drinking is about more than just issuing "one size fits all" advice. Your family history, genetic makeup and susceptibility to cancer and alcoholism will all play a role in your decision to drink. Even your mental health (such as whether or not you're suffering from depression) can upset the balance and lead to addiction. Other factors such as your gender, level of physical activity, smoking habits and so forth will also play a role in how much alcohol your body can realistically tolerate, and if the health payoff is truly worth it.



For more by Georgianna Donadio, MSc, Ph.D., D.C., click here.

For more on personal health, click here.