Alcohol and Liver Cancer

Does Alcohol Lead to Liver Cancer?

Many people know that abuse of alcohol can lead to such damage to the liver that it puts the organ at risk for cancer. But why does that happen? The liver is an organ that removes toxins from the body, and ethanol can be thought of as a type of poison the liver has to break down and remove. This is why alcohol coming into contact with the cells of the liver is inevitable after a person’s had a drink.

Role of Acetaldehyde

Medical researchers don’t understand exactly why alcohol can lead to damage to the liver. Many suspect that a byproduct of alcohol called acetaldehyde has a role. Acetaldehyde is a toxin that’s even more poisonous than alcohol itself. It damages DNA by producing molecules that act much like free radical molecules. These molecules steal electrons from other molecules and damage cells and tissue. On top of this, acetaldehyde prevents the body from repairing the damage. It makes liver cells proliferate, and some of those cells are going to have mistakes in their DNA that can result in liver cancer. Protein, which is necessary for nearly every function in the body, is also damaged by acetaldehyde.

The damage caused by alcohol and acetaldehyde lead to irritation and inflammation in the liver over the long term. This inflammation can lead to scarring, which is called cirrhosis. Over the years the scar tissue in the liver starts to accumulate, and the liver tries to combat this by creating healthy cells. But this creates the risk of the cells become malignant, or cancerous. This leads to primary tumors in the liver. Primary tumors are tumors that originate within the organ itself and not from cancer cells that metastasized from other organs. According to statistics, about 500,000 people die from primary liver cancer every year.


Another way alcohol can make the liver susceptible to cancer is because it has the effect of lowering the amount of folate in the body. Folate is a B vitamin that’s necessary for proper metabolism. Alcohol interferes with the absorption of folate, other B vitamins and carotenoids, which the body converts into vitamin A when it’s needed. Alcohol also keeps the body from absorbing glutathione and vitamins A, C and E, antioxidants that give protection against those molecules that would damage the DNA. Alcohol abuse produces an enzyme called cytochrome P450 2E1, which in turn damages the immune system, causes the cells in the liver to behave abnormally and produces substances that can turn into carcinogens.

People who abuse alcohol are often malnourished, which can further weaken their immune system. Heavy alcohol consumption adds empty calories to the body to the point where a heavy drinker can become obese. Doctors believe that being overweight makes a person more at risk for some cancers.


Alcoholic beverages themselves often have a variety of additives that are not particularly healthy. Some of these additives are a byproduct of fermenting the grapes, grain or tubers that go into the beverage. These are called congeners, and they give the type of alcohol its particular taste and aroma. They include acetones, methanols, esters, tannins, phenols and acetaldehyde itself.

Most people can drink alcohol safely. But it is still a good idea to know how abuse of alcohol can damage the body, particularly the liver.

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