Beer and health

The health benefits of moderate red wine drinking have been extensively studied. But several recent studies on beer suggest that it may be as, or even more, healthy if consumed in moderation.

At base, of course, both contain alcohol and there is abundant evidence that it can have a variety of beneficial effects.

Alcohol consumption has been associated with higher levels of HDL cholesterol, the good type. Drinkers also had lower levels of fibrinogen, a protein that promotes blood clots that can lead to stroke and thrombosis.

Overall, several studies, such as one undertaken at the Institute of Epidemiology at the University of Muenster, suggest moderate drinking of beer helps reduce the risk of coronary disease.

Alcohol lowers insulin levels, which aids in reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

But the benefits, according to varied studies, derive from more than just the alcohol. A Dutch study from the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute found a 30% increase in vitamin B6 among beer drinkers. Red wine and gin drinkers gained only half the increase.

In the July 2001 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a study attributed the healthful effects of beer drinking to its folate levels. Folates are thought to help combat cardiovascular disease.

A study undertaken at Harvard, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001 concluded that moderate consumption helped preserve the mental abilities of older women.

A recent study at Tufts University suggests that beer consumption, whether light or dark, can protect bone mineral density. Thinning of the leg bones is often a problem for the elderly.

But what about the potential risks? Researchers are unanimous that pregnant or nursing women should not drink alcohol, since it can lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Alcohol can pass through the umbilical cord and through breast milk and affect the brain.

Weight gain can be an issue. Beer has no fat, but alcohol and the residual sugars in beer do contain calories. A glass of beer contains between 150-450 calories, depending on size and type. But that amount is lower by volume than apple juice or a similar glass of red wine.

The key, again, is moderation. Excessive drinking has long been known to cause liver damage, and can stress kidneys.

Beer has no caffeine but studies show that moderate coffee drinking helps alertness, a benefit at work and in driving. Heavy drinking obviously leads to less mental acuity and can increase the risk of traffic accidents as well as those around the home.

Amount is everything. Moderate consumption can be relaxing, reducing stress, a factor in several health issues. Excess drinking leads to drawbacks that outweigh the benefits.

Benefits derive from the alcohol, moderate amounts of B vitamins, helpful amounts of magnesium and selenium and other components. And beer is 90% water, which along with the alcohol helps flush kidneys. The brewing process and the alcohol also help kill bacteria in the water.

Naturally, no single article or study should be taken as definitive. But, limited to one to two 12-oz glasses per day, most studies suggest the benefits far outweigh the risks.