Why does drinking alcohol boost your risk of cancer? By damaging the DNA in your stem cells, a new study suggests. And if your face flushes red after you sip half a bottle of beer, like many Asians, you could be getting way more DNA damage from a night of drinking than other people.
The British study found that mice exposed to a dose of alcohol roughly equivalent to a person drinking half a bottle of whisky have observable DNA and chromosome damage in their blood cells afterwards.
‘If you carry the flushing mutation, alcohol could be very damaging to you.’
– KJ Patel, Cambridge University
And mice with the gene responsible for the “Asian flush” or “Asian glow” in humans show four times more DNA damage after a single dose of alcohol, reports the new paper published last week in the journal Nature. That’s equivalent to the amount of DNA damage seen in normal mice after they’re irradiated.
“If you carry the flushing mutation, alcohol could be very damaging to you,” says Ketan (KJ) Patel, a professor with the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, who led the study. It was funded by the Medical Research Council in the U.K., the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and King’s College, Cambridge.
Because DNA damage can lead to cancer, the findings could help explain why alcohol is linked to cancer in humans — even those without the flushing mutation.
According to the World Health Organization, alcohol use is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, colorectum and breast, and in 2010, alcohol-related cancers caused 337,400 deaths worldwide. The Canadian Cancer Society says as many as 10,700 Canadians were diagnosed with cancer linked to their alcohol consumption in 2015. Recently, a government-backed university study even started testing cancer warning labels on liquor bottles, although that experiment has been temporarily halted.
DNA repair system
The good news is that the body does have a system for repairing the DNA damage caused by alcohol, which was also observed at work in the study.
Patel says that people with the…