Health Effects of Beer
Beer is the third most popular drink in the world, ranking only behind water and tea, and is the alcoholic beverage of choice for most drinkers.
The industry ranges from an average person and their home-brew kit, through to huge multinational corporations. In 2006, beer production companies earned more than $294 billion USD.
The Chinese are the world's biggest beer drinkers, 45 billion liters were downed in 2010, outranking American, Japanese and German beer drinkers - all countries with a strong beer-loving reputation.
What is beer?
A German would say: it is a mixture of malted barley, hops, yeast and water with no other additives allowed, except maybe sugar. In fact, you can only use the word 'beer' in Germany to describe such an alcoholic drink - it is mandated by law!1
However, beer may mean any alcoholic drink made from the following ingredients:
- a starch source, such as malted or non-malted grains
- yeast for fermentation
- plant-based flavoring agents such as hops, wormwood, ginger, berries, etc.
It may also contain sugar, or additives to remove the cloudiness of the liquid (clarifying agents).
The alcohol content is usually between 4-6%. However, it can be raised above 40% using freeze distillation methods.
Beer and health
But what about the health effects?
Over-consumption of anything has negative effects. Until recently, the negative image of drinking too much had a lot of exposure, with its associated beer bellies, increased aggression, and pounding hangovers.
Recent research is showing there are some positives to drinking beer in moderation, suggesting that 1 standard drink, 3-4 times per week may have health benefits.
Positive health effects
A low-level intake of beer, 1-2 standard drinks (350ml / 12 oz) ,has been shown in a wide range of studies to have positive effect on health.
Nutrients in a 350ml can of average beer
% Daily Value
The vitamin B and antioxidants in beer contribute to a healthy balanced diet.2
Other nutrients may be present, depending on the ingredients used in and the method of brewing.
It may initially help with the fear of social situations, by relaxing tension and slowing the brain's processing of panic signals.
A moderate intake has been shown to reduce the bad cholesterol that thickens arteries, and also reduces cholesterol in the liver (possibly due to the ethanol content).
A popular folk remedy against insomnia is to drink a warm beer before sleeping, to relax and slow the nervous system.
Hops can be found in some herbal tea blends combating insomnia.
Negative health effects
The negative health effects are almost entirely due to chronic excessive drinking.
Drinking too much, too often, will cause the diseases that drinking a little beer seems to prevent!
Beer in language
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Drinking more than four standard drinks in one day (350ml / 12 oz of beer), will trigger inflammation in the liver.
Long term heavy drinkers have a high risk developing liver disease: fatty liver (steatosis), alcoholic hepatitis, and eventually cirrhosis.10
The good news is that much of the early damage can be repaired by complete abstinence from alcohol.
How beer affects the brain
Even a small amount will slow down signal processing from the nervous system. Short term visual memory, depth perception and learning capabilities are all impaired with a few drinks.11
A moderate intake was shown to decrease verbal ability in elderly subjects.12
Adolescent drinkers can more easily damage their brain function and learning capabilities, because their brains are still developing. Alcohol upsets their hormonal balance, and stops the healthy development of organs, including their reproductive system.13
Over time, drinking heavily damages short and long term memory functions. Drinkers are unable to recall their intentions and plans, and have trouble learning.
Heavy drinkers are also more likely to suffer from insomnia and depression. The risk of strokes is increased, and eventually, alcohol withdrawal seizures and tremors may develop.
Unfortunately, this damage is not reversible.
Elsewhere in the body
Heavy drinkers are at risk of developing a number of forms of cancer, especially liver and colorectal cancers.14 In fact, various cancer bodies around the world have categorized alcohol as a known carcinogen.
Excessive alcohol intake has been linked to the following illnesses:
- skin disorders including hives, psoriasis and rosacea.
- gout, leading to arthritis.
- stomach inflammation
- diabetes and pancreatitis
Perhaps T-rex Sue, who had severe gout and joint pain, ingested too much alcohol?
Health myths debunked
There are many baseless health claims both for and against beer drinking.
Beer alone is not what causes a beer belly. Eating and drinking too many calories is the primary cause of larger bellies.
It will also not help you lose weight! Even though alcohol increases the rate at which you burn calories, it makes you hungry.15
It is certainly not a meal in a bottle as it is lacking most of the healthy nutrients that make up a balanced meal, even though it has a high calorie count.
While red wine can help prevent common colds, beer has no effect.16 Although alcohol of any type doesn't shorten the infection time, it may help you relax and manage the symptoms more easily.
Does it cause brain damage?
Perhaps it could if you hit someone over the head with a full bottle!
Mythbusters proved in their Bottle Bash episode, a full long-neck beer bottle, used as a weapon, can result in severe concussion, brain trauma and skull fractures. Not to mention the glass cutting into the scalp! Ow!
Beer myth impact
Which beer myth are you most upset isn't true?
Beer and Health - Symposium
- Vorläufiges Biergesetz, German Beer law, 1993
- Nutritional and health benefits of beer, M.A. Denke, American Journal of the Medical Sciences, November 2000, 320(5):320-6
- Alcohol dosing and the heart: updating clinical evidence, M.N. Di Minno, M. Franchini, et al. Seminars in Thrombosis and Hemostasis, November 2011, 37(8):875-84
- Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption and risk of stroke among U.S. male physicians, K. Berger, et al. New England Journal of Medicine, November 1999, 341(21):1557–64
- Diet and gallstones in Italy: the cross-sectional MICOL results, A.F. Attili, E. Scafato, et al. Hepatology, June 1998, 27(6):1492-8
- Prospective study of beverage use and the risk of kidney stones, G.C. Curhan, W.C. Willett, et al. American Journal of Epidemiology, February 1996, 143(3):240-7
- Effects of beer, wine, and liquor intakes on bone mineral density in older men and women, K.L. Tucker, R. Jugdaohsingh, et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2009, 89(4):1188-96
- Alcohol consumption is associated with decreased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, H. Källberg, S. Jacobsen, et al. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, July 2008. 68(2):222–7
- Effects of moderate beer consumption on first-line immunity of healthy adults, J Romeo, J. Wärnberg, et al. Journal of physiology and biochemistry, June 2007, 63(2):153-9
- Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Alcoholic Liver Disease, K.V. Narayanan Menon, et al. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, October 2001, 76(10):1021-9
- The role of GABA(A) receptors in the acute and chronic effects of ethanol, S. Kumar, P. Porcu, et al. Psychopharmacology, September 2009, 205(4):529-64
- Alcohol intake and cognitive abilities in old age, J. Corley, X. Jia, et al. Neuropsychology. March 2011, 25(2):166-75
- Underage Drinking, NIAAA, January 2006
- Alcohol and cancer, P. Bofetta and M. Hashibe, The Lancet Oncology, February 2006, 7(2):149-56
- Alcohol intake and body weight: a paradox, Eric Jéquier, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 1999, 69(2):173-4
- Intake of wine, beer, and spirits and the risk of clinical common cold, B. Takkouche, C. Regueira-Méndez, et al. American Journal of Epidemiology, May 2002, 155(9):853-8
- Moderate consumption of beer reduces liver triglycerides and aortic cholesterol deposit in LDLr-/- apoB100/100 mice, P. Degrace, et.al., Atherosclerosis, Dec 2006,189(2):328-35
- Dietary isohumulones, the bitter components of beer, raise plasma HDL-cholesterol levels and reduce liver cholesterol and triacylglycerol contents similar to PPARalpha activations in C57BL/6 mice, Y. Miura, et.al., British Journal of Nutrition, April 2005, 93(4):559-67
Other health claims?
What other health claims for and against beer have you heard?
Let us know in the comments below!