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Can Just One Drink Increase Breast Cancer Risk?

The research findings about the impact of drinking alcohol on overall health can be confusing. One day we see a report telling us that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial, and the next there is a news story warning us to banish gin and tonic or red wine forever from our lives. What’s the story?

You may be familiar with studies that have linked consumption of red wine (rich in antioxidants) and cardiovascular health. A new study in Current Medicinal Chemistry, for example, explains how the polyphenols and resveratrol in red wine, and even the alcohol (ethanol) itself contribute to protecting cardiovascular health by reducing the risk of stroke and heart failure. But when it comes to breast cancer, it appears the story changes.

A new study has come out stating that drinking just one alcoholic beverage or glass of wine daily can boost a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. The authors of the report, who hail from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, also share some good news about how women can reduce that risk beyond limiting their alcohol intake.

First, let’s look at what the experts are saying about daily alcohol and breast cancer risk among post-menopausal women, which is the population most often affected by the disease. The authors evaluated scientific data from 119 studies that involved 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer. They uncovered strong evidence that consuming about 10 grams of alcohol daily (equivalent to less than 5 oz of wine or less than 12 oz of beer) can increase breast cancer risk by 5 percent among premenopausal women and by 9 percent among post-menopausal women.

To help counteract that risk, the authors emphasized the exercise factor; that is, “Having a physical active lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight throughout life and limiting alcohol—these are all steps women can take to lower their risk,” according to one of the lead authors, Anne McTiernan, MD, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The report pointed to vigorous exercise, such as fast bicycling or running, as being key to reducing the risk of breast cancer.

In fact, premenopausal women who were the most physically active had a 17 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer when compared to women who were least active. Among postmenopausal women, those who were most active had a 10 percent lower risk when compared to their least active peers.

There’s more from the study that can help women reduce their breast cancer risk. For example:

  • Women who breastfeed are at a lower risk for breast cancer.
  • The risk of postmenopausal breast cancer increases among women who are overweight or obese.
  • Greater weight gain during adulthood increases the risk of developing post-menopausal breast cancer.
  • Eating non-starchy vegetables appears to lower the risk for estrogen-receptor negative breast cancers.
  • Diets high in calcium as well as foods rich in carotenoids (e.g., apricots, carrots, leafy greens such as kale and spinach) seem to lower the risk of developing some breast cancers.
  • Overall, women can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer by boosting their level of physical activity–either by doing more or engaging in more vigorous activities—substituting fruits and veggies for junk food such as chips and cookies, and limiting alcohol consumption to an occasional single drink or less.

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