Beer and your health

Conway McLEAN, DPM

A gathering was recently held in our fair city, celebrating the diverse local offerings of a popular beverage known as beer. It was a large and well-attended affair, and the second of such this year. After attending this event, it seemed appropriate to research this commonly consumed liquid, and report on the results. Dedicated readers will recall prior articles on wine and coffee, so it seems only fitting, following this gathering, to discuss beer and its effects on our health.

The first news item concerns the popularity of this ancient drink. Brewing and drinking of beer dates back to 5000 BC, and was recorded in the ancient history of Mesopotamia. Beer is the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic drink, and is the third-most popular drink overall (after water and tea). It is thought by some to be the oldest fermented drink.

For Americans who imbibe alcohol, beer remains the alcoholic beverage of choice. Forty-three percent of Americans who drink alcohol prefer beer, while 32 percent consume wine and 20 percent liquor in its many incarnations. Approximately 36 percent of total recorded alcohol world-wide is consumed in the form of beer, with beer consumption being highest in the Americas.

So what is beer? Obviously, as most everyone knows, it’s an alcoholic drink. Beer is produced through the process known as brewing, prepared using barley, hops, water and yeast. These ingredients are easily available in grocery or online stores. It can also be made using wheat or rice instead of barley.

Brewing is a mildly complex process involving initially the boiling of malt, hops and water to create a grainy, sugary liquid. Next, yeast is added producing a flat, warm mixture. Finally, a bit of sugar is introduced to the mix, and it is then bottled. This latter addition results in carbonation, and foaming, fizzy beer is produced (after a week or two).

Beer can be made at home using these ingredients and a brewing kit, which is comprised of containers, fermenter, and assorted other items. There are many varieties of beer, many of which could be sampled at the beer festival. Some of those available included pale ale, stout, mild ale, wheat, amber ales, porters, lambic and lager beer, but experimentation in different flavors is now rampant.

Strange concoctions involving the use of fruit, coffee, coconut, and others, are commonplace. Micro-breweries, smaller scale brewers, produce smaller quantities and unusual flavors than the industrial giants of American beer like Miller or Budweiser.

Health-wise, it is important to start by stating that excessive consumption of alcohol in any form, be it wine, spirits or beer, is harmful. But in appropriate quantities, beer does have benefits. It has a greater protein and vitamin B content than wine, while its antioxidant content is equivalent to that of wine. Hops, a major component of beer, is a rich source of flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants. It is also a very good source of certain minerals that play essential roles in various metabolic processes. If consumed in moderate quantities as mentioned, it can boost your health in a number of ways.

For example, beer is believed to help in the prevention of cancer. A flavonoid compound called xanthohumol is found in the hops commonly used in brewing beer. This substance has been found to play a major role in the prevention of cancer, especially prostate cancer. Beer is also a good source of polyphenols, due to the grains used for fermentation. Polyphenols have been proven effective in fighting cancer, just as in red wine.

A reduced risk of cardiovascular disease has also been reported. Due to the presence of vitamin B6, beer protects against heart disease by reducing levels of homocysteine. This is a substance which appears to be a reliable predictor of blood vessel inflammation. B6 also has a thinning effect on the blood, preventing the formation of clots, which can lead to blockage of vessels supplying the heart, resulting in a decreased risk of a heart attack.

Moderate consumption of alcohol, in whatever form you choose, also appears to reduce the levels of inflammation in the blood. Research is showing that this is a major cause of plaque formation in arteries, known as atherosclerosis (aka hardening of the arteries). This form of arterial disease has many dangerous consequences.

A couple of beers a day can actually strengthen your bones and reduce your risk of fractures, according to research performed at Tufts University. Moderate intake is shown to increase bone density, thereby preventing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. In this study, men who had one or two brews had up to 4.5 percent greater bone density than non-drinkers (although drinking more than two beers was associated with up to 5.2 percent lower density!)

Beer is also a good source of both vitamin B12 and folic acid, with a deficiency of these potentially leading to anemia. Some other proposed benefits of moderate beer consumption include a better immune system (allowing a person to better fight off infections), serving to aid in digestion, reducing the incidence of high blood pressure, and even lessening the chances of developing dementia.

Excess consumption (of anything!) certainly has consequences to one’s health. And everyone has heard of the infamous “beer belly”. Yet this is simply the result of an excessive intake of calories. That’s correct, beer isn’t necessarily to blame. People sporting beer bellies generally have poor diets, consume too many calories, and don’t get enough exercise. Too many calories of any kind can result in a ‘beer belly’. Liquid calories are easy to overdo, since you don’t get a sense of fullness. Because the average 12-ounce beer contains 150 calories, it adds up quickly. (Alcohol also makes you hungry, as well as lowering your inhibitions, thus you may eat more than you planned to.)

But don’t plan to get your nutrients from beer, or to drink beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, for health benefits. Drinking too much beer, or any other type of alcohol, is bad for you. Heavy alcohol consumption wipes out any health benefit and increases the risk of cirrhosis, liver cancer, alcoholism, and obesity. Heavy or binge drinkers seem to have an increased risk of stroke, chronic hypertension, weight gain, colon and breast cancer.

In nature, too much of anything is a bad thing. This concept applies to the drinking of beer, the ingestion of sweets and simple carbohydrates, as well as so many other things. Beer that is produced without preservatives, with healthy, natural ingredients, can provide a positive effect on our health and well-being. As the ancient Greek philosopher (probably) stated, all things in moderation. Including a nice amber ale with dinner!

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at drcmclean@penmed.com.