Can Alcohol Really Increase Risk of Breast Cancer?

by Dr. Julian Whitaker
Filed Under: Diet, General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

The recent media frenzy about alcohol being linked to an increased risk of breast cancer may have alarmed you—especially if you drink a glass of wine daily for its reputed health benefits. But don’t panic. As is usually the case, the headlines are much scarier than the actual facts.

These reports are primarily based on the results of two studies. The first was a Harvard University study that showed light to moderate alcohol consumption could slightly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Researchers combing through data from the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study found that three to six drinks per week increased a woman’s risk of breast cancer by nearly 15 percent.

And a more recent Boston University study also suggested that alcohol—even in moderation—is a factor in about 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths. Furthermore, this study found evidence of higher risk with just one drink a day. Although I can’t tell you these studies aren’t true, I can tell you that they don’t mean you need to give up your wine ritual.

First, a 15 percent increase in risk may sound startling, but that just means the average 50-year-old woman with a 3 percent risk of developing breast cancer would have about a 3.45 percent risk if she’s a moderate drinker. So it does raise your risk, but not dramatically.

Second, what wasn’t reported is all the evidence pointing to an additional culprit: folic acid deficiency. Alcohol can interfere with utilization of B-complex vitamins (including folic acid), and multiple studies have shown that higher folic acid intake dramatically reduces alcohol’s effect on breast cancer risk. So be sure to eat your leafy greens and take a daily multinutrient with plenty of B-complex vitamins and at least 800 mcg of folic acid.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we know that while one out of 36 women in the US will die from breast cancer, one out of three will die from heart disease. And alcohol intake—as little as one drink per day—can significantly decrease cardiovascular risk.

Add to that the known benefits of resveratrol in red wine coupled with alcohol’s proven ability to reduce risk of stroke, dementia, and diabetes, and you find that overall, the benefits still outweigh the risks for moderate drinkers. Heavy drinking, however, is associated with multiple health and social problems.

Now it’s your turn: Do you take folic acid every day? 

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