Ever wonder why drinking alcohol is tied to an increased risk of at least seven types of cancer, plus a bunch of other chronic diseases?
Well, it may come down to something super simple — bacteria.
The connection between your microbiome (the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that call your body home) and disease is the cutting edge of medicine right now. The closer we look, the more we realize that the bacteria in our microbiomes determine our current and future health.
That’s why it’s becoming more important to practice habits proven to promote a healthy microbiome… and ditch the stuff that fuels the disease-causing bacteria in your microbiome.
Based on a new study, alcohol seems to fuel the bad stuff — the strains tied to cancer, heart disease and other health problems. So, it may be time to give those nightly drinks a second thought…
More alcohol means a less healthy microbiome
A recent study from researchers at New York University’s Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center found that people who drink at least one alcoholic beverage per day have a lot more of the bacteria that’s tied to gum disease, certain cancers and heart disease in their mouth.
The study included 1,044 people between the ages of 55 and 87. All study participants were enrolled in two ongoing national cancer trials. They were healthy when the trials began, and they provided a sample from their oral microbiome and shared information about how much alcohol they drink.
Based on the information study participants provided, researchers divided them into three groups: non-drinkers, moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers.
Researchers immediately noticed that heavy drinkers and moderate drinkers had less of a type of healthy bacteria known as Lactobacillales in their oral microbiome. But that’s not all…
They also observed that the more someone drinks, the more unhealthy bacteria they have in their mouth. Heavy drinkers had more disease-linked bacteria strains, like Actinomyces, Leptotrichia, Cardiobacterium, and Neisseria. Neisseria has even been linked to certain types of cancer. So, these bacterial changes could be one big reason why drinking alcohol puts you at risk for certain diseases.
“Our study offers clear evidence that drinking is bad for maintaining a healthy balance of microbes in the mouth and could help explain why drinking, like smoking, leads to bacterial changes already tied to cancer and chronic disease,” says study senior investigator and epidemiologist Jiyoung Ahn, PhD.
This study didn’t dive into why alcohol creates unhealthy changes in the oral microbiome. But researchers have a few suspicions…
They believe the acids in alcohol may create a hostile environment for healthy bacteria, which allows the bad guys to get out of control. They also think that the harmful byproducts your body creates when it breaks down alcohol could have a negative effect on the microbiome. This includes toxins like acetaldehydes, which are tied to cancer.
Getting a handle on healthy alcohol habits
So, does this study solve the mystery of why alcohol is closely connected to so many diseases? It might. But there’s probably more than one reason why alcohol is bad for you.
The more important question is…how are you going to apply this knowledge to your own life? Are you going to stop drinking? Cut back? Or keep enjoying your nightly cocktails?
Whatever option you choose, it’s good to know your risks. It’s typically considered safe to have one alcoholic drink per day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man. Anything over that was considered “heavy drinking” in this study.
If you’re looking to cut back on drinking — or cut it out completely — there are ways to make it a little easier. You can start by:
- Keeping a journal of how much you drink. When you’re not keeping track, it’s easy to underestimate your alcohol consumption. But a written log will give you a clearer idea of how much you really drink.
- Setting specific goals. Your goal may be to give up drinking completely, cut back to one drink per day or limit your cocktails to the weekend. But once you set a specific goal, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable.
- Getting rid of the alcohol in your house. If you have alcohol around, it’s more tempting to make drinking a daily habit. If you don’t have it around, it’s easier to limit your drinking to dinners out or social events, which makes it more of a treat.
- Drinking slowly. If and when you do drink alcohol, savor it. Sip on it slowly and mindfully, so you truly taste it and enjoy it. This will make it easier not to overdo it.
- Picking up new hobbies. For some people, drinking is just something to fill their free time. If that sounds like you, fill your free time with other things instead. Sign up for a fitness class, art class, music class or book club. If you can, make sure it’s scheduled around the time you typically drink.
- Steering clear of people and places that make you want to drink. It’s harder to cut back on drinking when you’re with people who are drinking a lot. That’s why you may need to spend less time with certain people or stop going to certain places. Going to bars or nightclubs, for example, will tempt you to drink, because you’re around a bunch of other people who are doing the same. You may even have certain friends who give you a hard time when you don’t drink. These are the type of friendships that can take a toll on your health if you don’t draw the line. Have a candid conversation with friends about your goal to drink less. If they’re not supportive, then it may be a friendship that’s best left in the past.
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- Drinking affects mouth bacteria linked to diseases — MedicalXpress. Retrieved May 7, 2018.
- Fan, et al. “Drinking alcohol is associated with variation in the human oral microbiome in a large study of American adults.” — Microbiome, 2018.
- 11 ways to curb your drinking — Harvard Medical School. Retrieved May 7, 2018.
- Tips to try — Rethinking Drinking, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved May 7, 2018.