A brew a day?
A local discussion of beer’s potential positive health effects
Dawn McDonald, owner of the Chico Home Brew Shop, regularly indulges in a homemade beer along with dinner.
It’s mostly a matter of taste, but McDonald acknowledges that enjoying a beer at the end of a busy day is a reasonable way to unwind and release stress. And though she agrees the same relaxing effect could be achieved by drinking wine or spirits, she said that sipping a full-bodied beer in the evening leaves her “not just relaxed, but fulfilled.”
“You don’t have to drink craft beer to release stress,” McDonald said. “I guess a shot of vodka could accomplish that, too. But for me, a shot of vodka, versus 12 ounces of home brew, is a vastly different experience. I’m not getting much of anything from that vodka; in fact, I might potentially be courting a headache.”
McDonald emphasized that she’s not a nutritional expert, but she concedes there may be truth in the mounting evidence that drinking a small amount of beer or wine on a regular basis has a host of health benefits that go beyond simple relaxation.
A handful of studies have suggested that moderate consumption of beer may boost HDL cholesterol (the good kind that keeps arteries clean), prevent diabetes, increase bone density (due to silicon content), support brain health, help prevent some forms of cancer, reduce inflammation, and even make losing weight less difficult.
In fact, a University of Washington study released in January determined the precise configuration of humulone molecules—a substance produced by hops during the brewing process—as a first step toward isolating the compound and researching its potential uses as an ingredient in pharmaceutical drugs.
Another study conducted by Spanish researchers, titled “Wine, Beer, Alcohol and Polyphenols on Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer,” concluded that “sufficient evidence supports a significant inverse association between regular and moderate wine consumption and vascular risk, particularly red wine, and a similar relationship is reported for beer consumption.”
The study also suggested that “any health[ful] effects of wine and beer are greater in combination with a health[ful] diet,” pointing to the widely touted Mediterranean diet—which combines moderate alcohol consumption with fruits, vegetables and whole grains—as evidence that compounds in wine and beer “have synergistic effects with compounds found in other food groups.”
Even so, while plenty has been written about the positive health effects of regularly drinking wine, there simply aren’t as many scientifically sound studies specific to beer, said Stephanie Bianco-Simeral, assistant director of Chico State’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion (CNAP).
But as someone who extensively researched the health benefits of wine as a student of nutritional biochemistry at UC Davis, and Texas A&M—particularly the role of antioxidants (found in wine) in combating free radicals, which can damage the body’s cells and lead to disease and premature aging—Bianco-Simeral is skeptical of results from lab studies aimed at understanding how an isolated compound in beer or wine affects the body.
“When you do that kind of research, you’re looking at the capacity of a compound to do something, or how much of a compound is in something,” she said. “It’s not telling you whether it’s digested, absorbed or functioning the way you think it will.”
Bianco-Simeral also takes epidemiological studies that look at the general health of a large population with a grain of salt.
“Take the ‘French paradox,’ for instance,” she said of the widely-held observation that France’s population has a relatively low rate of coronary heart disease despite a diet high in saturated fats. “You’ve got this high consumption of cheese and butter, but you also have nuts and a fiber-rich diet, and different levels of activity.
“Yes, they’re also consuming more alcohol, but can you say they have less heart disease because of the alcohol?”
If there are indeed health benefits to regularly drinking beer, both McDonald and Bianco-Simeral agree the key is moderation.
“There are studies that show a small amount [of beer] could be better for you than not drinking any at all,” Bianco-Simeral said. “But, is it better to have none than [to drink] in excess? For sure.”
McDonald added that excessive consumption of alcohol in any form—not just beer—is very much a “different approach.”
“[A binge drinker] is not trying to have a fulfilling experience by enjoying a pale ale with their dinner,” McDonald asserted. “Their purpose is so different—if someone abuses alcohol, it’s about getting buzzed, or beyond buzzed.”
For women, moderate alcohol consumption is generally considered to be no more than one drink—a 12-ounce beer, one five-ounce glass of wine, or one shot of 80-proof liquor—a day. For men, the standard is no more than two drinks a day. For Bianco-Simeral, that widely accepted rule of thumb serves to illustrate how easy it is to drink beyond what is considered a healthful amount of alcohol. She noted that going out for a drink usually entails having more than one, and since a pint is 16 ounces, the 24-ounce limit for men is exceeded by drinking two pints of beer.
McDonald suggested people tend to “overindulge in a lot of different things” despite being aware of the potential negative consequences.
“It’s the same thing with food,” she said. “It may be something good for you, but if you start stuffing it down every day in vast quantities, you could end up with some sort of toxicity.”
For her part, Bianco-Simeral believes the health benefits of any form of alcohol have been overblown.
“I think, in all honesty, people want to hear that wine and beer is nutritious, so it’s another reason to consume it.”