Cancer Prevention: Alcohol & Smoking

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

Written by: Dr. Sarah Soles, Naturopathic Doctor, FABNO

Cancer prevention is a topic that is not addressed frequently enough, particularly because cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada and nearly half of all Canadians will develop cancer during their lifetime. Most cancers are however attributed to diet and lifestyle factors, so there is a lot that you can do to minimize your risk! Some of the first items that should be addressed are consumption of alcohol and exposure to cigarette smoke.


The story of alcohol and cancer risk is an interesting one. Alcohol is believed to increase cancer risk through a variety of mechanisms. The breakdown of ethanol produces acetaldehyde, a probable carcinogen that can damage DNA. DNA damage can also occur through oxidation because alcohol increased the generation of reactive oxygen species in the body. Furthermore, alcohol can impair the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients that are associated with minimizing cancer risk, such as vitamins C, A, D, E, and multiple B vitamins. Alcohol consumption can also increase estrogen levels, which may in part be why it increases the risk of breast cancer.

Alcohol consumption is known to increase the risk of developing mouth, laryngeal, pharyngeal, esophageal, breast, liver, and colorectal cancer. For the head and neck cancers, the risk is even greater when alcohol consumption is combined with tobacco use. The Canadian Cancer Society states that “drinking any type of alcohol raises your risk of developing cancer. The less alcohol you drink, the more you reduce your risk”. This is a good guideline and generally what should be encouraged.

However, this statement may not represent the full impact of all alcoholic beverages on overall health. For example, there was a recent meta-analysis that showed that very light to light drinking was not associated with an increased risk of cancer, except for breast cancer in women and colorectal cancer in men. There are also very few studies that have assessed risks associated with each type of alcohol. This is relevant because certain types of alcohol such as red wine have compounds like resveratrol which may be protective against cancer. In addition, a small amount of alcohol may also be protective against other causes of death like cardiovascular disease.

The take home message on alcohol consumption is that it is best to avoid, especially for tobacco users. If you are going to consume alcohol anyway, it is advisable to limit it to no more than one alcoholic beverage in a night and ideally consume it with food to prevent high blood ethanol levels. Data is lacking on whether some types of alcoholic beverages are less harmful than others, but given the known impact that non-alcoholic sweetened beverages have on insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, it is likely best to choose an alcoholic beverage without added sugar.

For some excellent tips on how to limit your alcohol consumption, see this list of 10 recommendations from the Canadian Cancer Society


Cancer prevention cannot be covered without touching on smoking because this is the leading cause of several cancers. Smoking increases the risk of developing cancers of the lung, head and neck, kidney, bladder, liver, stomach, pancreas, cervix, and certain leukemias. There are thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke, at least 250 of which are known carcinogens. These carcinogens damage DNA and can cause mutations that lead to the development of cancer. Second-hand smoke is detrimental to health as well. In Canada, it is estimated that 800 deaths per year are related to lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from second-hand smoke.

Electronic cigarettes can be useful to help with smoking cessation but are not a risk-free alternative. The vapours produced from these devices can include nicotine, heavy metal contaminants, and volatile organic compounds. These devices are also relatively new, and their long terms health consequences have not been studied.

If you are a smoker, one of the most important things you can do for cancer prevention and overall health is to quit.

How Naturopathic Doctors Can Help

Naturopathic doctors (NDs) are valuable physicians to work with for cancer prevention because the optimal plan needs to be individualized to each patient. Recommendations on how to modify the relevant dietary and lifestyle factors that can increase cancer risk are foundational. NDs can also order testing to assess risk factors specific to each patient (ex. blood sugar, inflammation, genetic testing, etc.). To learn more about how an ND can help optimize your health and prevent cancer, book an initial consultation at


Canadian Cancer Society. Sobering facts about alcohol and cancer risk. Retrieved from

Choi YJ, Myung SK, Lee JH. Light Alcohol Drinking and Risk of Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Cancer Res Treat. 2018;50(2):474-487. doi:10.4143/crt.2017.094

Heath Canada. Risk of vaping. 2020. Retrieved from

Health Canada. Dangers of second-hand smoke. 2015. Retrieved from

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