The Lancet study analyzed alcohol use and downstream health effects in 195 countries over the course of 26 years

By Timothy Hyland

Before you raise your glass to toast the holidays or the New Year, you may wish to reread two recent studies that go farther than any in the past to highlight the health dangers of drinking. It might be wise also to share the results with your patients.

The report that received the most public attention was published in late August in the influential medical journal The Lancet, based upon a large-scale, comprehensive study about the benefits and dangers of drinking.

Jiyoung Ahn, PhD
Jiyoung Ahn, PhD

And as it turns out, there were a great deal more of the latter than the former.

The Lancet study analyzed alcohol use and downstream health effects in 195 countries over the course of 26 years. It concluded that alcohol was a major contributing factor to such health problems as cancer, tuberculosis, depression, and self-harm, among many others. And though the researchers allowed that moderate drinking might help prevent heart disease, their overall conclusion was straightforward: The safest way to drink, they said, is to avoid drinking at all.

The study calls into question years of research that had suggested there may be a "safe" or “beneficial” level of drinking. Coincidentally, that Lancet work followed a similar study, published just a few months earlier, that hinted at yet another sign of the dangers of even moderate drinking — in particular, the risks it poses to oral health.

That research, from epidemiologist Jiyoung Ahn, PhD, from New York University, may not have drawn the global media attention that the Lancet piece did, but it did offer further evidence that drinking may be a direct cause of broad-based, holistic health problems, including some of the most aggressive forms of cancer.

Dr. Ahn’s work, published in the journal Microbiome, built on the still-budding body of research about the so-called “microbiome”—the complex and not-yet-fully-understood system of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi that exists in and throughout our bodies. While much work in this area looks at the “gut” microbiome, Dr. Ahn’s focus was specifically on the microbiome of the mouth—and the relation between microbiome health and cancer.


The results were striking: the drinkers in the study were more likely than non-drinkers to have three strains of bacteria in their microbiome that have been linked to serious cancers.


"My overall research interests are focused on finding the most important factors for determining diseases, particularly cancer," Dr. Ahn explains. "We are also interested in how we can prevent those cancers. What are the major factors in determining [the health] of the oral microbiome?"

If her April study is any indication, it's clear that alcohol is definitely a factor—and a negative one, at that.

For her work, Dr. Ahn examined the drinking habits and overall health of more than 1,000 adults—some of whom were non-drinkers; some of whom were moderate drinkers; and some of whom were heavy drinkers. All participants gave the research team extensive health histories and also provided samples of salvia for analysis.

The results were striking: the drinkers in the study were more likely than non-drinkers to have three strains of bacteria in their microbiome that have been linked to severe cancers. Perhaps more notably, the heavier the drinker, the more likely it was that the problematic bacteria would be present. The study also linked drinking to heart disease, gum disease, and other conditions.

The works represent a step toward greater understanding of the microbiome’s role in overall health, as well as yet another compelling piece of evidence that alcohol may be more dangerous than previously believed.

Dr. Ahn—who is now examining the role of soda in the microbiome—admits that much more work needs to be done to link drinking to such serious diseases conclusively, and she also notes that overall scientific understanding of the mysterious microbiome is limited.

All that being said, she says the evidence thus far is clear enough to suggest that the authors of the Lancet study may be correct in their truly sobering assessment—that the safest level of drinking is no drinking.


Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years’ experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and the Washington Times.

Also by Mr. Hyland:

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