What's Wrong with Beer?

I know that red wine is good for the heart, but I’m wondering if beer has any beneficial health effects? I recently heard that it might protect against Alzheimer’s disease. What about heart disease?

– May 22, 2015

New research from China suggests that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, the aromatic herb that flavors beer, may protect brain cells from damage that could lead to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The investigators noted that accumulating evidence links oxidative damage to brain cells with the development of neurodegenerative diseases. The team from Lanzhou University reported that when they tested xanthohumol on brain cells in the lab, they found it could protect them from oxidative damage and suggested that it might slow development of brain disorders.

Other studies suggest that xanthohumol has antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor activity. Research at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University has shown it to be active against breast, colon, and ovarian cancer cells – at least in test tubes. It might also help prevent prostate cancer.

Don’t start quaffing beer on the strength of these preliminary findings. What looks good in lab studies may have little to do with what happens in the real world.

However, accumulating real-world evidence also suggests that beer has some health benefits, and might be as protective of heart health as wine:

  • An Italian report published in 2011 suggested that moderate beer consumption could lower the risk of heart attack by 31 percent, compared to non-drinkers, the same benefit seen in wine drinkers. Investigators at Italy’s Fondazione di Ricereca e Cura reviewed studies including data on more than 200,000 people to determine whether beer drinking had an effect on cardiovascular health. Based on their findings, they advised that the best bet for heart health was limiting daily consumption of beer containing five percent alcohol to slightly more than an English pint’s worth. An English pint gives you about 20 percent more beer than an American pint.
  • A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the drinking habits of more than 38,000 men over 12 years and found that those who drank moderately were 30 to 35 percent less likely to have had a heart attack than non-drinkers. The investigators concluded that it didn’t matter if the alcohol was in the form of wine, beer or spirits and reported that men who drank alcohol daily had a lower risk of heart attack than those who drank once or twice a week.

In general, alcohol doesn’t seem to have an adverse effect on health unless you drink too much of it. Having more than one to two alcoholic drinks a day increases your intake of calories, may contribute to obesity, raise your triglycerides and blood pressure,increase the risk of heart failure, stroke, cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart muscle due to disease), and cardiac arrhythmia, as well as cause liver damage, accidents, and fetal alcohol syndrome (if you drink too much while pregnant), and increase risk of several types of cancer.

While moderate drinking may have some health benefits, if you don’t drink, I still don’t advise starting for health reasons.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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