BEER CLINIC :: Health Effects of Beer

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on January 19, 2011

Dr. Carol Westbrook

Dr. Carol Westbrook

Of course, beer is healthy! Just about any yeast product adds nutrients that our body cannot make itself, or which promote our health in small amounts. This, by the way, is also true for other yeast-based products including wine and aged cheese. Malted barley contains a fair amount of the B vitamins–niacin, riboflavin, biotin, and folate.  (You will, of course, have an adequate supply of these vitamins if you eat a balanced diet, so you don’t need to get them from beer.)

Beer also contains certain antioxidant compounds which help prevent cancer.  Wine does, too, but perhaps the compounds are different. There is an ongoing debate as to which is healthier, beer or wine, and I won’t step into that debate, but I will note that distilled spirits (whisky, vodka, etc.) leave behind the antioxidants, vitamins, and phenolic compounds that result from malting and fermenting.

Beer is a soporific (sleeping tonic). Although alcohol itself is a mild sedative, beer seems to be stronger in this regard, and this is attributed to the hops. Beer also seems to be an appetite stimulant, over and above the effect of alcohol.

Overall, the major health benefit to beer drinking is in the alcohol content. There are numerous studies which show that small amounts of alcohol (1-3 glasses per day for men, 1 for women) reduce the risk of heart attacks, lower cholesterol, and may delay the age at which dementia begins. All of these studies are “epidemiologic.” In other words, the studies look at the drinking habits of large numbers of people, as well as the average health effects relative to alcohol. They don’t say much about why and how, or the effects on individual people. Furthermore, the benefits seemed to include all types of alcohol; the conclusions were based on what the individual researcher wanted to study—beer or wine.

But every gift from the gods has its downside. Every adult who consumes alcoholic beverages understands that there are limits to what he or she can tolerate, and everyone knows that habitual drinking can lead to serious problems with alcoholism.

A word of caution about beer drinking: as you become more sophisticated in your tastes for beer, you will probably start to drink wonderfully delightful draft beers. If so, you may find you are drinking more.  For example, a pint draft (16 oz.) of Arrogant Bastard Ale  (7.2% Alcohol By Volume [ABV]) contains almost twice the alcohol of a 12 oz. can of Budweiser (5% ABV)! So, if you’re used to quaffing down a six-pack of Bud you will end up seriously impaired if you do the same with higher-alcohol beers.

Of course beer is healthy! But it’s not enough to justify heavy beer consumption, or to promote beer over, say, wine. I’m sorry, you will need another excuse to drink beer.  How about this: you drink beer because you like the taste, because you find it fascinating, and because it’s okay to drink beer.

Ed: Dr. Carol Westbrook is a medical oncologist. She received an M.D. and a Ph.D. (biochemistry) from the University of Chicago, and spent 20 years in academic medicine, teaching and doing cancer research. Dr. Westbrook is also an amateur brewer and a contributor to this column.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard February 1, 2011 at 4:43 am

Thank you doctor for your expert analysis on the health benefits and medicinal values of beer. After reading it, I have added an extra thousand dollars to my pre-tax medical spending account for purchasing the golden brew. Cheers!

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admin July 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm
Mike Webinger August 17, 2018 at 4:58 pm

Hi Dr. Westbrook.
Question: what’s this new study about alcohol causing cancer. I had colon cancer this year. Luckily it was caught in time(stage 2). I love beer and still want to drink it.
What’s your thoughts.
Mike

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Dr. Carol Westbrook August 17, 2018 at 5:35 pm

A good question, thank you for posting. Yes, there is some data linking alcohol consumption, and most of it is related to head & neck cancer, esophageal cancer, and liver cancer in heavy drinkers who also smoke. If you don’t smoke, there is still a slightly increased risk of breast cancer in women, but the risk is about 1.13 times above normal. And many other factors have a higher risk, including obesity, lack of exercise, hormone use. The risk of cancer in men is not increased with greater than 2 drinks per day; heavy drinkers tend to be smokers and the data is hard to interpret. You realize that the risk of a new colon cancer is higher in someone who has already had one colon cancer, and there is always some risk of recurrence of your stage 2 cancer (but it’s lower as time goes on). Still, you have to do everything you can to lower your risk, including screening colonoscopy, losing weight and exercising, and eating a high fiber diet. Probably a good idea to drink in moderation, cut down your consumption a bit — but there’s no hard data that this will make a big difference. Hope this helps. Cheers!

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