If you ask some scientists, moderate drinking might not pose any real risk. But in November of 2017, doctors released a warning that alcohol could contribute to an increased risk of dozens of cancers. The precise reason behind this cancer correlation is still unknown — but a new study conducted at Cambridge University shed some light on what might link alcohol to cancer. The results suggest that alcohol could cause irreversible damage to the body’s reserve of stem cells, which are responsible for creating new tissues, and that it therefore might result in cancerous mutations.
“How exactly alcohol causes damage to us is controversial,” Ketan Patel, co-author of the study, told The Guardian. “This paper provides very strong evidence that an alcohol metabolite causes DNA damage [including] to the all-important stem cells that go on to make tissues.”
Acetaldehyde is a byproduct of the breakdown of alcohol. The study investigated the toxin’s effects in the body and found it sliced through DNA used to replicate cells. There are defense mechanisms against this degenerative effect, though if these blocks against DNA damage malfunction or are missing, the impact on cells can be caustic.
The mice involved in the study were genetically modified to lack these defense mechanisms. Over time, the damage accumulated to such an extent that some cells stopped working entirely.
The researchers chose to focus on stem cells found in the blood, since they are continually used to replenish blood cells throughout a person’s (or a mouse’s) lifespan. However, they believe the results could be generalized to all types of cells.
While the link requires further research to confirm, it’s a good idea to keep tabs on your drinking for the sake of your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting moderate drinking to one to two standard drinks per day. What exactly constitutes a “standard drink” varies, though — here is what constitutes a standard drink in 11 countries around the world.