How Alcohol Damages Your DNA

drinking alcohol

Story at-a-glance -

  • During a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in the previous 30 days, just over 25 percent of people over 18 reported binge drinking and 7 percent reported heavy alcohol use
  • In the short term, alcohol poisoning kills six people every day; alcohol use may also lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and seven forms of cancer
  • Research demonstrates a product of alcohol metabolism damages DNA and increases your risk for cancers, including cancer of the stomach, pancreas, bowel and breast
  • Exercise may help reduce your craving for alcohol, and supplements such as vitamin C, vitamin B, magnesium, milk thistle and N-acetyl cysteine, may reduce the negative effects of drinking small amounts of alcohol

By Dr. Mercola

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, just over 26 percent of people over 18 reported binge drinking in the previous 30 days of the study when it was performed in 2015.1 Another 7 percent reported heavy alcohol use. This is congruent with the U.S. Surgeon General's Report showing that substance abuse in the U.S. is skyrocketing, including alcohol abuse.2

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol poisoning kills six people every day.3 These are deaths related to short-term consumption of toxic amounts of alcohol that leads to central nervous system depression and shutdown in critical areas of the brain controlling breathing, heart rate and body temperature, ultimately resulting in death.4 This statistic does not address other negative effects alcohol has on your health.

In addition to being a central nervous system depressant, alcohol is a carbohydrate lacking in real nutritional value. Nearly one-third of Americans are obese and according to the CDC, in 2014 there was no state in the U.S. with a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent.5

Although scientists have found associations between alcohol consumption and negative health conditions such as pancreatitis and stomach cancer, what has been missing is the precise nature in which alcohol damages your body. New research shows that as your body processes alcohol, a transient toxic compound is produced that attacks DNA.6

Alcohol Damages DNA and Increases Risk for Cancer

The research7 demonstrated the effect alcohol had on blood stem cells in mice. The researchers gave ethanol to mice and then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to study genetic damage on the body by acetaldehyde, produced during the metabolic processing of alcohol.

The researchers from Cambridge University's MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology found a buildup of acetaldehyde happened when there is too much for the body to break down, or when mechanisms to reduce acetaldehyde function poorly.8

While previous research had pinpointed acetaldehyde as the culprit that caused DNA damage, those studies were performed on cell cultures and not on a living body. However, the evidence was strong enough to prompt the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, their highest risk category.9 The researchers chose to study blood stem cells since they quickly replicate and readily spread genetic damage throughout the body.10 

Lead author Dr. Ketan Patel commented on the extent of the damage their data revealed, saying:11 "We saw huge amounts of DNA damage in these cells. Bits of DNA were deleted, bits were broken and we even saw parts of chromosomes being moved about and rearranged."

The researchers found acetaldehyde breaks and damages DNA in blood cell stem cells, leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering DNA sequences.12 This DNA damage increases your risk for seven types of cancer, including breast and bowel cancer. Patel explained:13

"Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage."

The study also examined the body's ability to protect itself from acetaldehyde and identified a family of enzymes that break the compound down into acetate, which your cells can use for energy. However, millions of people, especially those of Southeast Asian descent, either don't have these enzymes, or the enzymes are faulty.14 This increases their risk of acetaldehyde accumulation, triggering greater DNA damage and a flushed face.

A second line of defense is a repair mechanism that helps repair DNA. However, Patel has found this doesn't always work, and some individuals carry mutations in the mechanism.15 Data has revealed the number of deaths related to alcohol consumption and cancer has increased 62 percent in 12 years, rising from 3.6 percent in 2003 to 5.8 percent of deaths worldwide in 2015.16 Patel went on to say:17

"Our study highlights that not being able to process alcohol effectively can lead to an even higher risk of alcohol-related DNA damage and therefore certain cancers. But it's important to remember that alcohol clearance and DNA repair systems are not perfect and alcohol can still cause cancer in different ways, even in people whose defense mechanisms are intact."

Factors That Influence Your Tolerance to Alcohol

There are several ways alcohol may influence your risk of developing cancer. The American Cancer Society warns just a few drinks each week can increase your risk of breast cancer.18 The risk is higher in women who have low folate levels. Alcohol affects your hormones and an increased estrogen level triggered by alcohol is linked to breast cancer. Hormone levels are also affected in men, which can lead to infertility.19

Alcohol's effect on your body is influenced by your body weight, ratio of muscle to fat, and how much and what kind of food you've recently eaten. Alcohol is one of the more addictive substances, and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates 1 in 12 Americans abuse alcohol or are dependent on the drug.20

Alcoholism is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the U.S. and up to 40 percent of hospital beds are used to treat alcohol related conditions, with the exception of maternity and ICU beds.

Your pattern of consumption doesn't appear to make a difference in the severity of your symptoms.21 Those who binge drink every week or two suffer some of the same conditions as those who drink daily. Dr. Alex Wodak, emeritus consultant at the Alcohol and Drug Service in Sydney, Australia's St. Vincent Hospital, describes the differences:22

"I've been in France early in morning and people, generally men, order a coffee and have a nip of brandy or whiskey, and they top up regularly during the day. They're never intoxicated but there's a formidable physical toll from all of that.

In the north of Europe, that kind of drinking style is very uncommon and what's more common is for people to have two-thirds of a bottle of spirits once a week and they set fire to a soccer stadium or slash train seats or belt their wife up or someone in the street they don't like the look of."

Since alcohol is a carbohydrate, it not only damages your liver and raises levels of DNA-damaging acetaldehyde, but it also increases your risk of obesity. Health care costs tied to overconsumption of sugar account for at least one-third of health care costs spent each year in America.23 This equates to nearly $1 trillion each year. An increase in weight is linked to osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and gout, just to name a few.

Alcohol Affects More Than DNA

Alcohol triggers changes in more than your DNA, affecting nearly every cell and organ system in your body. In your brain, alcohol affects your limbic system that controls your emotions, which is why alcohol lowers your inhibitions. Your prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with reasoning and judgment, also slows in response to alcohol, leading to more impulsive behavior and poor judgment. Chronically, in as little as one month, you may experience:24,25,26

  • Increased liver stiffness, which increases your risk of liver cirrhosis.
  • Diminished memory formation due to ethanol buildup in the brain. This is why you may not remember what you did while you were drunk. Alcohol also causes your hippocampus to shrink, which affects memory and learning.
  • Systemic inflammation. Alcohol significantly increases five inflammatory markers.27 Studies have shown even a single binge causes a dramatic rise in inflammation. In other words, your body reacts to alcohol in the same way as it reacts to injury or infection.
  • Increased stress on your heart, raising your risk for cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, high blood pressure and stroke. Blood alcohol levels spike two to three hours after your last drink, which means it may occur in the middle of the night during sleep. This raises your risk of accidental death due to choking on your own vomit and/or suffering cardiac failure or stroke while sleeping.
  • Significantly increased endotoxin levels. Alcohol causes gut damage, allowing bacteria to escape from your gut into your bloodstream. Regular consumption also leads to elevated endotoxin levels,28 suggesting "sensible" drinking limits likely need to be much lower than the current 14 to 21 units current recommended in the U.K.29 How low is still unclear.

Less Is Always Better

Alcohol is a known cancer risk factor that contributes to cancer deaths. In research published by the American Cancer Society, scientists analyzed cancer diagnosis and death data compiled from the CDC and National Cancer Institute. They found 42 percent of cancer diagnoses and 45 percent of cancer deaths could be attributed to preventable or modifiable risk factors.30 Those factors included smoking, excess weight, alcohol intake, low consumption of fruits, vegetables, fiber and calcium, and lack of physical activity.

The researchers analyzed over 1.5 million cases of cancer and over 600,000 cancer deaths to evaluate whether a link existed between these modifiable factors and cancer. They found that lung and colorectal cancers had the highest number of diagnoses and deaths that could be attributed to preventable factors.31

Cigarette smoking was responsible for the greatest number of cases of cancer diagnosed, while obesity and being overweight was responsible for the second greatest number. Although alcohol-related cancers ranked third on the list, alcohol is a contributing factor to obesity.

A combination of two of these modifiable factors, smoking and alcohol intake, are also related to the development of visible age-related signs.32 While most people are concerned with external appearance, it's important to remember that damage done to your skin by these toxins is likewise being done to your internal cells and organ systems.

If you currently are a drinker, it is vital to consider how this impacts your overall health and increases your risk for several different health conditions. Research suggests that reducing or eliminating your alcohol intake and raising your exercise level will help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

This makes sense when you consider the fact that exercise may be one of the most effective strategies for protecting and strengthening your heart, so much so that research shows regular exercise can significantly lower your health care costs if you have heart disease. According to one study, 30 minutes of vigorous exercise, five times per week, could result in annual health care savings of more than $2,500 per person.33

Exercise and Supplements May Reduce the Negative Effect on Your Body

Exercise is a foundational pillar to good health and may also help counteract inflammation in your body caused by alcohol.34,35 The data demonstrated those who got 2.5 hours of moderate activity a week reduced the biological impact of drinking, while those who got five hours or more of moderate activity experienced the same mortality as those who never drank.

Other research has demonstrated that long-time drinkers who exercise regularly have less damage to white matter in their brains than those who exercise very little or not at all.36 Exercise may also reduce your risk of becoming dependent. Just like alcohol, exercise releases dopamine, a brain chemical associated with rewarding behaviors. Experiencing this feel good chemical may reduce your desire for alcohol and may help those who are dependent to lessen their cravings.37

Although this may help in the short run, alcohol impedes your desire for physical fitness and reduces your testosterone production, making it more difficult to build muscle. While I don't recommend drinking, if you know you'll be having a few drinks, using one of the following natural protocols prior to drinking may help minimize the damage to your body. However, this will not reduce your susceptibility to alcohol poisoning or other adverse events associated with binge drinking. So, please, use common sense and drink responsibly.

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): NAC is a form of the amino acid cysteine. Many of its benefits relate back to the fact that it helps boost production of glutathione, an important antioxidant your body produces naturally that helps reduce free radical damage and plays a role in the detoxification of heavy metals and other harmful substances. It also reduces acetaldehyde toxicity that causes many hangover symptoms.38

Try taking NAC (at least 200 milligrams) 30 minutes before you drink to help lessen the alcohol's toxic effects. NAC is both safe and inexpensive, and has been commercially available for a long time. It's also generally well-tolerated and has no known serious side effects.

Consider that, like alcohol, one way that Tylenol causes damage to your liver is by depleting glutathione. If you keep your glutathione levels up, the damage from the acetaminophen may be largely preventable. This is why anyone who overdoses on Tylenol receives large doses of NAC in the emergency room — to increase glutathione.

B vitamins: NAC is thought to work even better when combined with vitamin B1 (thiamine).39 Vitamin B6 may also help to lessen hangover symptoms. Since alcohol depletes B vitamin in your body, and B vitamins are required to help eliminate alcohol from your body, a B-vitamin supplement taken beforehand, as well as the next day, may help.

Milk thistle: Milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, antioxidants known to help protect your liver from toxins, including the effects of alcohol. Not only has silymarin been found to increase glutathione, but it also may help to regenerate liver cells.40 A milk thistle supplement may be most useful when taken regularly, especially if you know you'll be having cocktails on more than one occasion.

Vitamin C: Alcohol may deplete your body of vitamin C, which is important for reducing alcohol-induced oxidative stress in your liver. Interestingly, one animal study showed vitamin C was even more protective to the liver than silymarin (milk thistle) after exposure to alcohol.41

Making sure you're getting enough vitamin C, either via supplements or food, is another trick to use prior to indulging in alcoholic beverages. Vitamin C is actually such a powerful detoxifier that if you take large doses prior to receiving dental anesthesia, the anesthesia will be significantly weakened and may not work.

Magnesium: Magnesium is another nutrient depleted by alcohol, and it's one that many are already deficient in.42 Plus, magnesium has anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce some hangover symptoms. If you don't eat a lot of magnesium-rich foods, taking a magnesium supplement before an evening involving drinking may be helpful.

+ Sources and References
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