Drinking Alcohol Raises Cancer Risk by Causing Irreversible DNA Damage

Draft beer poured in a brewery in France. A new study reveals that alcohol could potentially change our DNA permanently. ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Drinking isn't exactly considered a healthy activity, but a new study shows that it could be even more damaging than most realize and cause irreversible changes to the DNA in stem cells.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology, a research institute in Cambridge, England), discovered these new findings in a study on lab mice, Reuters reported. The findings are newly published in Nature.

Related: Even Light Drinking Increases Your Risk of Cancer, Doctors Warn

In the study, scientists gave the animals diluted alcohol before looking at their DNA to study the effects of drinking. They found that a breakdown product of alcohol, called acetaldehyde, acts a toxin and can damage the DNA in blood stem cells. Acetaldehyde could create a permanent change and is thought to potentially cause mutations responsible for cancer.

"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," Ketan Patel, study co-author, told Reuters.

Patel's team found that some may be more susceptible to alcohol damage than others. According to Reuters, enzymes in the body called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH) come to our defense by breaking down the acetaldehyde into a usable form of energy. Mice who were engineered not to have the enzyme had four times more damage to their DNA than mice with ALDH, the news service wrote.

We also have a second defense mechanism against alcohol that helps repair DNA damage, which the researchers tested, reported The Guardian. After knocking out both layers of defense in the experimental mice, the team found that the stem cells within the animals were rendered unable to generate fresh blood for up to 10 days.

"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," Patel told The Guardian. "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 defence mechanisms are intact."

Research has shown that even light drinking can raise the risk of many cancers including breast, colon, esophageal, larynx and oral. And as the Centers for Disease Control explained, there is no safe amount of alcohol when it comes to breast cancer and liver disease.

Of course, this study was performed in lab mice, and further research is need in people. But now might be a good time to attempt Dry January.