Let’s hear it for beer!

Beer has been consumed for at least five or six thousand years. Prayers, recipes and descriptions have shown it was integral to the inebriation of people from ancient civilizations including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans and Greeks.

Some historians go so far as to suggest that the craving for beer created civilization itself. Hunter gatherer societies began farm crops and to build towns in response to the need to stay in one place long enough to permit fermentation and brewing. Fortifications and armies were formed to protect the essential grain crops.

Whether beer provided the impetus for civilization or not, it was certainly a crucial (if not the primary) source of nutrients in early societies.

Naturally beer has changed substantially over the centuries. Originally formed by fermenting bread, it would have barely had a fizz let alone the frothy head we know today. Hops were a later addition and thus early beers differed remarkably from the bitter flavor of current western beer.

While for most people, beer is no longer a major source of nutrition, beer today still contains a wide range of essential compounds including proteins, antioxidants and B vitamins. With such a powerhouse of ingredients, it has the potential to be good for you. But is it?

As usual, the answer lies in the quantities in which it is consumed. While 10 beers may seem like a great idea on a Friday night, generally Saturday’s hangover reminds us that moderation is the sensible course. In large quantities, beer, like any other alcoholic beverage can cause nausea, headaches and in the long term, liver disease, brain deterioration and cancers including mouth, oesophagus, liver, lung and colon.

But in moderation, then how good for us is beer?

First let’s define moderation. Moderation is equivalent to (or less than) 1 standard drink a day for women and two for men.

Beer is high in B vitamins – vitamins important in mood regulation, promoting healthy tissue growth, boosting the immune system and preventing anemia.

Like red wines, beer protects the cardiovascular system, with moderate beer drinkers having only a third the risk of coronary heart disease than a non (or heavy) drinker. The magic ingredients in both wine and beer appear to be the anti-oxidants, polyphenols (found in hops and malt) – and beer contains as much polyphenol as wine. These are chemicals which prevent the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) – also known as “bad” cholesterol. “Bad” and “Good” cholesterol are misleading terms. Cholesterol is good for you to some extent – it allows you to be solid at room temperature. However transporting cholesterol in LDLs damages the arteries through oxidation. Cholesterol carried as high density lipoproteins is considered “Good cholesterol” as it does not cause atherosclerosis to the same extent. A beer a day increases the amount of HDLs by 4.4%.

Studies following people for at least 10 years have shown that moderate alcohol intake (including beer) has also been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 36% for men and 58% for women. It seems like isohumulones, responsible in part for the bitter flavors in beer, reduce the insulin levels in the blood. They also help to prevent (and can be used to reduce) hypertension.

Beer can act as an antiviral – inhibiting the replication and thus spread of numerous viruses including HIV.

Beer is also high in phytoestrogens – plant similies of the hormone estrogen. These phytoestrogens are what supposedly makes soy products beneficial. While beer has yet to be fully tested, it is possible that constituents may help to regulate circulating hormone levels thus improving mood, reducing cholesterol and possibly preventing some cancers.

Beer can even protect against radiation damage (from things like x-rays) with numerous studies showing better survival rates after high dosage radiation in animals given beer extracts, and protection of lymphocytes in human blood. Some of this is due to cancer prevention compounds. Beer constituents have been shown to reduce free-radical levels in the blood and to prevent some DNA damage associated with early tumours. In animals, this has been demonstrated as a reduced risk of colon cancer.

For the more elderly, beer seems especially beneficial. It has been shown to counter osteoporosis (weakening of bones associated with broken hips and other bones) with regular drinkers showing reduced bone mass loss.

It also slows dementia onset. For people 55 and older, moderate alcohol (including beer) drinkers showed better cognitive function than their teetotal (or inebriated) peers. Don’t take your gran out to lunch – take her to the pub!

On the downside, beer does give you the munchies. However studies have shown that beer consumption does not lead to a higher body mass index (BMI) and can reduce weight gain under some circumstances – in other words the beer gut is an urban myth. Obviously, like any alcohol it’s not beneficial during pregnancy as it can cause physical and behavioural problems in the child. The only other negative thing I found about beer was that regular consumption increased the amount of bleeding after operations.

Overall, beer does appear to be a bit of a wonder drug – so long as you lay off the stubbies a couple of weeks before the hospital visit and if you are expecting.

So perhaps it really is as Benjamin Franklin once said that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”


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Negrao MR, Keating E, Faria A, Azevedo I, Martins MJ. (2006) Acute effect of tea, wine, beer, and polyphenols on ecto-alkaline phosphatase activity in human vascular smooth muscle cells. J Agric Food Chem. 54(14):4982-8.

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Filed under Curious Science, Kitchen Science, Science

4 responses to “Let’s hear it for beer!

  1. Absolutely fascinating – I’d heard that there were health benefits to drinking beer in moderation, but that’s quite some list.

    As far as the fact that the beer gut is a myth goes, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the beer gut is actually a “sedentary lifestyle with poor diet that includes some beer” gut.

    There was a study (there I go again, citing studies I only vaguely remember) published a while back that showed a strong correlation between diet soft drink consumption and obesity.

    When questioned, the author of the study said she didn’t think she’d found a causal relationship between artificial sweeteners and obesity, but that the correlation would best be summed up by the request “I’ll have a king-sized whopper-burger combo and a sundae …. errr, and a diet coke, please, I’m trying to lose weight.”

    I guess the beer gut must be a similar phenomenon …

  2. There has been some evidence of a causal relationship between diet foods and weight gain (see previous entry “Diet foods – just how diet are they?”
    linking the re-training of the body that sweet foods have very few calories to overeating of high calorie food at other times. But other studies have shown replacing sugared foods with diet foods does reduce weight gain over time.

    Though I think you are probably more right with the fries and diet soft drink argument.

  3. Hey, it’s not called “liquid bread” for nothing. Beer and wine were about 5-10% of people’s caloric intake in the middle ages and earlier, it was a key method of preserving the harvest. I hadn’t heard it it was instrumental to settled civilisation, but it doesn’t surprise me. Neat post.


  4. Pingback: Density of Ethanol: Keep a Close Eye on Density and Water Content |

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