Alcohol, Insomnia and Cancer


Alcohol, Insomnia and Cancer

It was announced recently in the UK, that alcoholic beverage manufacturer Diageo has been invited to suggest measures to tackle public health crises. A similar invitation is being considered in the US. (1)

Diageo is the world’s largest producer of spirits and a major producer of beer and wine. (2)

Net profit generated by the company rose to 1.6 billion pounds ($2.59 billion) in the 12 months to June 30 2009, up from 1.5 billion pounds earned in the previous fiscal year.(3)

Perhaps Diageo will suggest diverting some of this profit into a health campaign to alert the public on the dangers of alcohol.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: excessive drinking, both in the form of heavy or binge drinking, is associated with numerous health problems including;

  • Chronic diseases, such as liver cirrhosis (damage to liver cells); pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas);  various cancers including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (the voice box), esophagus; high blood pressure; and psychological disorders.
  • Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle crashes; falls; drowning; burns; and firearm injuries.
  • Violence, such as child maltreatment; homicide; and suicide.
  • Harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
  • Alcohol Abuse or dependence.

In the US alone, approximately 14,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer attributed to alcohol consumption.(4)

A 1997 publication by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research stated that;

The role of alcohol in increasing breast cancer risk was among the most consistent findings regarding the influence of dietary factors on breast cancer risk, and research since then has continued to demonstrate the relationship between alcohol consumption and breast cancer. However, the reasons for this are unclear. (5)

Could Insomnia play a part?

Insomnia can present itself as difficulty falling asleep, multiple awakenings during the night, or early morning awakenings with the inability to get back to sleep.(6)

The average adult sleeps 7.5 to 8 hours every night. Although the function of sleep is unknown, abundant evidence demonstrates that lack of sleep can have serious consequences, including increased risk of depressive disorders, impaired breathing, and heart disease. Alcohol consumption can induce sleep disorders by disrupting the sequence and duration of sleep states, and by altering total sleep time as well as the time required to fall asleep.(7)

Ironically, alcohol is often used as a form of self-treatment of insomnia.  However, alcohol use to induce sleep can, in itself, be a cause. (8)

Sleep is part of  a process called the circadian rhythm – each of us has one. Our circadian rhythms dictate when we wake up and when we go to sleep, and they function, more or less, on a 24-hour cycle. This rhythm is driven by natural light and dark cycles, when the sun comes up and when the sun goes down.

Interference to this natural rhythm can result in disruption of hormonal production. One such hormone is melatonin.

Melatonin embarks on numerous tasks. One of these is the restriction of cell growth. At pharmacological concentrations, melatonin suppresses cancer cell growth and multiplication. At physiological and pharmacological concentrations, melatonin acts as a differentiating agent in some cancer cells and lowers their invasive and metastatic status. (Melatonin and Cancer summary)

Night Shift and Breast Cancer

In a large, and to the authors knowledge, first prospective cohort study (2001) of shift-work and breast cancer, the risk of breast cancer was statistically significantly elevated in postmenopausal women who worked for 30 or more years on rotating night shifts, compared with those who never worked at night. (9)

A few years later, in 2009, it was reported that women in Denmark who developed breast cancer after many years of working night shifts, received compensation despite only limited research supporting the link.  Out of 78 cases notified to the national board of industrial injuries in Denmark, 38 have received compensation through their employers’ insurance schemes.

All of the women had worked night shift patterns for at least 20 years and were otherwise at low risk – they had low alcohol consumption and no family history of breast cancer. The Danish decision was based on a ruling by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in December 2007 which stated that;

“shift-work that involves circadian disruption is probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Other experimental studies have indicated the majority of totally blind people whereby melatonin is never suppressed by light exposure since most totally blind women are not receptive to light, could be protected from cancer through this mechanism. (blind people and cancer)

Richard Stevens, Ph.D., cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington, Conn., and colleagues published a study in the British Journal of Cancer that found breast cancer risk decreased by degree of visual impairment, from moderate low vision to totally blind.

“It was initially thought that blind women might have a greater risk of developing breast cancer because some studies have reported that they have earlier menarche and delayed child-bearing age, both of which have been seen to increase the risk of breast cancer in women,” Stevens said. “Yet these women have been found to have a lower risk of developing the disease.”

They concluded that this suggests a dose-response relationship between visible light and breast cancer risk.(10)

Light At Night

There is also a connection with visible light at night and depression.

Exposure to even dim light at night is enough to cause physical changes in the brains of hamsters that may be associated with depression, a new study shows.

The results are significant because the night-time light used in the study was not bright: 5 lux, or the equivalent of having a television on in a darkened room, said Randy Nelson, co-author of the study and professor of neuroscience and psychology at Ohio State.

“You would expect to see an impact if we were blasting these hamsters with bright lights, but this was a very low level, something that most people could easily encounter every night,” said Nelson, who is also a member of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

Is depression a problem?

It occurs in about 10% of the general population and in about 25% of persons with cancer.   According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in the past 15 years the number of people seeking treatment for depression in the U.S. has doubled; now 25 million people a year.(11)

A study, depression and cancer risk (2002), suggested depression may cause an individual to smoke more and/or to drink more alcohol and thereby indirectly lead to an increased risk of cancer.(12)

A more recent study in Canada found that even when other factors were taken into account, a depressive episode was an independent risk factor for alcohol dependence and a substantial likelihood that regular heavy drinkers who had experienced a major depressive episode would be alcohol dependent. (13)

No wonder alcoholic drinks company Diageo’s profits keep rising.



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