As the weather starts to get warmer, it reminds me of a little ditty I heard many years ago from an older University of Pennsylvania alumnus at a college homecoming meeting: “Oh, it’s that most difficult time of the year/Too warm for scotch, and too cool for beer.”
But with summer on the horizon, peak season for cold beer is upon us. And there are actually many healthy reasons to crack open a cold one after a long, hot day.
Sip for sip, beer is actually healthier than red wine
Red wine has been touted by doctors and nutritionists since the 1980s (before the neo-prohibitionists started their campaign to ban alcohol). And deservedly so. I’ve written before about the many health benefits of red wine. But the barley and hops in beer contain some healthy nutrients and plant constituents, like flavonoids, that are even more potent than those found in the grapes used in wine production.
Plus, the health benefits of beer go beyond the simple relaxation and stress reduction of drinking any alcohol in moderation.
Indeed, research shows that moderate consumption of beer can lower your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.
Beer can also help keep your gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome healthy, protect against bone loss, and lower your risk of getting cataracts.
Even non-alcoholic beer is good for you. One study found it reduces anxiety and promotes better sleep quality.1 That’s because the hops in beer are natural relaxants—even without alcohol.
In case you need more reasons why beer can be even healthier than wine, consider this: Like wine, beer is loaded with antioxidants. But beer contains more protein, fiber, and B vitamins than red wine.2 And it’s a gold mine for bioavailable minerals such as calcium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and silicon.
But what about the calories in beer, and the infamous “beer belly”? Well, it turns out that beer and wine are both pretty low-calorie. A five-ounce glass of red wine has 125 calories, whereas a can of beer has 154. So moderate consumption of either beverage won’t lead to a beer belly—or even a wine belly.
And when you take into account the many health benefits, those calories can be considered well spent. In fact, all of the nutrients in beer make it seem more like a food than an alcoholic drink.
So let’s take a closer look…
The whole body health benefits of beer
Heart health. Beer can help protect against heart disease. In fact, research shows the alcohol in beer, spirits, and wine helps keep blockages from building up in arteries.
But some of the other constituents of beer appear to have cardiovascular benefits beyond the influence of alcohol. In particular, the B vitamins in beer keep two key risk factors for heart disease in check—homocysteine and chronic inflammation.
One recent study followed nearly 70,000 Chinese men and women (average age of 50) for six years. Researchers found that the moderate beer drinkers had lower risk factors for cardiovascular disease compared with non-drinkers.3
And another study of more than 50,000 U.S. male health professionals found that for those who had suffered one heart attack, moderate beer consumption cut their risk of dying from heart disease by a whopping 42 percent.4
Brain health. Far from the myth of “killing brain cells,” beer actually helps protect against cognitive decline and dementia.
Research has found that the silicon in beer helps protect the brain from compounds thought to contribute to cognitive disorders.5
And I’ve written before about research showing that a yellow compound in hops known as xanthohumol (XN) protects brain cells from damage—and may slow or even prevent the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.6
Plus, I recently came across a striking study that found that participants who drank enough beer to become “tipsy” were able to solve puzzles faster than those who were stone-cold sober. In fact, alcohol consumption made the drinkers 30 percent more likely to find unexpected solutions to the puzzles.7
All of these benefits may share a common connection—the anti-inflammatory properties of the hops that create the distinct taste of beer. Researchers compared different varieties of hops and found they contain constituents that block inflammation-causing compounds.8
Metabolic health. Moderate consumption of beer may be a refreshing way to ward off diabetes.
A five-year Danish study of more than 70,000 people found that men who consumed one to six beers per week had a 21 percent lower risk of diabetes compared with those who didn’t drink any beer.9
Beer helps fight diabetes in several ways. First, Oregon State University research in lab animals shows that the compound in hops I mentioned earlier—XN—can improve glucose tolerance and insulin resistance, and fight the metabolic syndrome that can lead to diabetes.10
XN also increases sensitivity to leptin, a hormone that signals when you’re full after eating, and helps regulate energy expenditure—two factors that help prevent obesity. And we all know how obesity is a big risk factor for diabetes.
Lastly, of course, hops’ ability to block inflammation is key to fighting diabetes and other chronic diseases—as I discussed on page 1.
Gut health. The Oregon State study I just mentioned also found that XN influences probiotic composition in the body. Scientists think one reason is because the hops in beer act as prebiotics that support healthy probiotic bacteria in the all-important GI microbiome.
Plus, hops have long been shown to have antimicrobial properties, which helps explain why they were added to beer in the first place. (For example, English-India pale ale, or IPA, beers are notoriously high in bitter hops—which once upon a time preserved the beer in shipboard barrels during long ocean voyages from England to India and other tropical regions).
Scientists think the XN in hops may alter the balance of bacteria in the GI tract, promoting the abundance of “good” bacteria, or probiotics.
Some studies also show that the hops in ales and beers can help relieve digestive disorders by stimulating gastric and pancreatic enzymes.
Bone health. Not only can the silicon in beer help with brain health, but it’s also key for strong bones—along with beer’s calcium.
One research review cited studies showing that silicon plays an essential role in bone formation and maintenance. And increased intake of silicon leads to more bone mineral density and bone strength.11
The studies reported that 40 mg a day of silicon seemed to be the most effective dosage—and 12 ounces of beer provides more than 8 mg of this important mineral. (Other good sources of silicon are raisins and green beans.)
Taking all of this into account, it’s also no surprise that another study found that moderate consumption of beer increased bone density in men and postmenopausal women.12
Eye health. Eye health is also influenced by beer. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but research generally shows that natural substances that benefit the brain also benefit the eye—since both are derived from the same embryological tissue, and constituents that can reach the brain also reach the eye.
In one study, Canadian researchers found that drinking one beer per day (especially dark beers, which contain even more nutrients) decreased risk of cataracts by as much as 50 percent.13 The researchers think beer’s antioxidants protect the eye’s mitochondria, while damaged mitochondria can lead to cataracts.
So, the next time you’re about to reach for a glass of wine or a tumbler of scotch, consider opting for a nice, cold beer instead. It’s a refreshing—and tasty—way to drink to good health. But remember…as always, moderation is key. For the most part, I recommend one to two cans or bottles of beer.
1“The Sedative Effect of Non-Alcoholic Beer in Healthy Female Nurses.” PLoS One. 2012; 7(7): e37290.
2“Nutritional and health benefits of beer.” Am J Med Sci. 2000 Nov;320(5):320-6.
3“Longitudinal study of alcohol consumption and HDL concentrations: a community-based study.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Apr;105(4):905-912. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.116.144832. Epub 2017 Mar 1.
4“Long-term alcohol consumption in relation to all-cause and cardiovascular mortality among survivors of myocardial infarction: the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.” Eur Heart J. 2012 Jul;33(13):1598-605.
5“Silicon: The Health Benefits of a Metalloid.” Met Ions Life Sci. 2013;13:451-73.
6“Xanthohumol, a Polyphenol Chalcone Present in Hops, Activating Nrf2 Enzymes To Confer Protection against Oxidative Damage in PC12 Cells”. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2015, 63, 5, 1521-1531.
7“Uncorking the muse: alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving.” Conscious Cogn. 2012 Mar;21(1):487-93.
8“Hop bitter acids efficiently block inflammation independent of GRα, PPARα, or PPARγ.” Mol Nutr Food Res. 2009 Sep;53(9):1143-55.
9“Alcohol drinking patterns and risk of diabetes: a cohort study of 70,551 men and women from the general Danish population.” Diabetologia volume 60, pages1941–1950(2017).
10“Improvements in Metabolic Syndrome by Xanthohumol Derivatives Are Linked to Altered Gut Microbiota and Bile Acid Metabolism.” Mol Nutr Food Res. 2020 Jan;64(1):e1900789.
11“Silicon: A Review of Its Potential Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Postmenopausal Osteoporosis.” Int J Endocrinol. 2013; 2013: 316783.
12“Effects of beer, wine, and liquor intakes on bone mineral density in older men and women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Apr;89(4):1188-96.