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Cancer: The popular UK drink ‘doubling’ the risk of bowel cancer – it’s drunk by millions

Deborah James discusses 'scary' bowel cancer symptoms

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Cancerous cells are an intractable enemy because they divide and multiply in the body at a rapid rate, spreading to other areas often before they are detected. This in-built advantage helps to explain why survival rates are lower than other chronic diseases. However, research suggests the decisions you make can partly determine your risk of developing cancer in the first place.

Recent research published in the journal Gut has tied sugar-sweetened beverages to an increased risk of bowel cancer.

Drinking two or more daily sugar-sweetened beverages in adulthood was linked to a “doubling” in the risk of bowel cancer before the age of 50 – at least in women.

And each daily serving was associated with a 16 percent higher risk, rising to 32 percent per daily serving during the teenage years, the findings indicate.

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, fruit flavoured drinks, sports and energy drinks, make up the leading (39 percent) source of added sugar in US diets, and 12 percent of the population drinks more than three servings (8 fl oz each) every day.

To probe the link between sugar-sweetened beverages and bowel cancer risk, researchers drew on information provided by 95,464 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II, an ongoing monitoring study of 116,429 US female registered nurses aged between 25 and 42 at enrolment in 1989.

The women reported what they ate and drank, using validated food frequency questionnaires every 4 years, starting in 1991. And 41,272 of them reported on what, and how much, they drank during their teenage years (13–18) in 1998.

Information was also supplied on potentially influential factors, including family history of bowel cancer, lifestyle, regular use of aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and vitamin supplements.

In 1989, participants were additionally asked to recall their health status, weight (BMI) and lifestyle in their teenage years.

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During 24 years of monitoring, 109 women developed bowel cancer before the age of 50. Higher intake of sugar-sweetened drinks in adulthood was associated with a higher risk of the disease after accounting for potentially influential risk factors.

Compared with those who drank less than one serving a week, women who drank to or more every day were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer, with each daily serving associated with a 16 percent higher risk.

Among the 41,272 who reported on their teen patterns of consumption, each daily serving was associated with a 32 percent higher risk of subsequently developing the disease before the age of 50.

Substituting sugar-sweetened drinks with artificially sweetened beverages, coffee, or semi-skimmed or whole milk was associated with a 17 percent to 36 percent lower risk of a bowel cancer diagnosis before the age of 50.

It is important to note that this is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause, only correlation.

And given that most participants were white women, the findings may not be applicable to men or other racial/ethnic groups, acknowledged the researchers.

Nevertheless, they pointed out that there are some biologically plausible explanations for their findings: sugar-sweetened drinks suppress feelings of satiety, risking excess energy intake and associated weight gain.

These drinks also prompt a rapid rise in blood glucose and insulin secretion, which, over the long term, can induce insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity and type 2 diabetes, they added.

Emerging evidence also suggests that fructose can impair gut barrier function and increase gut permeability, which could promote the development of cancer, suggested the researchers.

“[Sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption may contribute to the rising incidence of [early onset bowel cancer].”

They concluded:“Reducing intake and/or [substitution] with other healthier beverages among adolescents and young adults may serve as a potential actionable strategy to alleviate the growing burden of bowel cancer before the age of 50].”

Bowel cancer symptoms include:

  • According to the NHS, more than 90 percent of people with bowel cancer have one of the following combinations of symptoms:
  • A persistent change in bowel habit – pooing more often, with looser, runnier poos and sometimes tummy (abdominal) pain
  • Blood in the poo without other symptoms of piles (haemorrhoids) – this makes it unlikely the cause is haemorrhoids
  • Abdominal pain, discomfort or bloating always brought on by eating – sometimes resulting in a reduction in the amount of food eaten and weight loss.

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