Coffee protects against liver cancer while alcohol is linked with numerous cancers

Alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for several cancers including head & neck (mouth, pharynx, larynx), oesophageal and bowel cancer - as well as the more widely known links to breast and liver cancer - according to a new study funded by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF)(1), and published this week in Nature Communications. The study also found increased coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of developing liver cancer and basal cell carcinoma of the skin.

The study looked at data from 860 reviews (meta-analyses) of published studies, which explored the association between food and nutrient intake and the risk of either developing or dying from 11 different cancers. According to NHS Digital(2), 65% of men and 50% of women in the UK had drunk alcohol in the last week. When alcohol is metabolized, it breaks down into chemicals which can bind to DNA, resulting in mutations which could become cancerous. Alcohol can also increase the levels of the hormones linked to the development of some types of breast cancer.

Coffee is one of the most commonly consumed beverages at a global level and it is thought that the beneficial effects of coffee consumption might be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may protect against diseases triggered by inflammation like cancer.

Dr Giota Mitrou, Director of Research and Innovation, WCRF said: "This umbrella review confirms the evidence we have for alcohol and coffee in relation to cancer. Further research needs to better understand the mechanisms involved in the links between coffee and cancer as well as between alcohol and different cancer subtypes. As always, we continue to encourage limiting alcohol intake as part of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations which include being a healthy weight, being physically active and enjoying a diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses."

The authors of the study are calling for more targeted public health policies in order to deter the known major diet related risk factors for cancer, particularly alcohol consumption.

This study was funded by WCRF, and was led by Dr Kostas Tsilidis, Senior Lecturer in Cancer Epidemiology in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics of Imperial College. This study is an umbrella review to systematically evaluate the robustness of the observational meta-analytic evidence across a large number of associations with risk of cancer at 11 sites. They further evaluated whether additional research is or is not warranted to change the inferences from the existing meta-analyses using an adaptation of research synthesis methods.

The findings in this study confirms the evidence from the WCRF Third Expert Report, positively linking alcohol consumption with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophageal (squamous cell carcinoma), breast, colorectal, stomach and liver cancer.

1. Papadimitriou, N., Markozannes, G., Kanellopoulou, A. et al. An umbrella review of the evidence associating diet and cancer risk at 11 anatomical sites. Nat Commun 12, 4579 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-24861-8
2. NHS Digital, Statistics on Alcohol, England 2020. Available from: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-alcohol/2020/part-4. Last accessed: August 2021

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