This month marks Opening Day for Major League baseball teams. And no trip to the ballpark is complete without the constant refrain of “Beer here!” from stadium vendors.
Indeed, beer has become ubiquitous with sporting events. You’ve undoubtedly seen the ads during televised games featuring the famous Budweiser Clydesdale horses. While it may appear that the giant beasts spend much of their time posing for the cameras, the original purpose of the Budweiser Clydesdales was to haul beer.
A precious cargo indeed.
You see, for much of human history, water was not safe to drink because it was contaminated with dangerous microbes. Not even horses would drink it. So humans learned to make beer from grains, wine from grapes, and cider from apples. And it turned out that beer contained just enough alcohol to kill the disease-inducing microbes in the water, and the yeast used in the brewing process.
I’ve often written about how beneficial moderate alcohol consumption can be to your health. But most research focuses on the health benefits of wine. Today, I’m going to tell you how beer also contributes to your mental and physical well-being.
I’ll share new research that shows how a compound in beer can protect your brain cells from the type of damage caused by neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
But before I explain how beer benefits your brain, let’s look at what it can do for your body.
A source of grains healthier than bread
The alcohol in beer is the result of the metabolic actions of various yeasts (such as “brewers’ yeast”) interacting with grains. Yeast, of course, is also used to make leavened bread and baked products. In these cases, the metabolic action of yeast produces gases that “rise” through the dough, creating air pockets and the typical texture of bread.
Several anthropologists, including my professor and faculty advisor at the University of Pennsylvania, Solomon Katz, believe that the yeast-grain interaction was actually first developed in places like Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and ancient Egypt for the purpose of brewing beer, rather than baking bread.
And since grains have not been part of the human diet for long in terms of biological history, we also have to wonder if grains were originally grown for beer instead of bread.
But what about the Biblical injunction regarding “thy daily bread?” Well, the bread referred to in ancient texts bears little resemblance to most of the loaves you’ll find stacked on supermarket shelves these days.
As I pointed out in the December 6, 2013 Daily Dispatch, the Book of Ezekial gives a very different recipe for making ancient bread, compared to the bleached wheat-flour concoctions that constitute today’s typical white bread.
Ezekial 4:9 says, “Take thou also unto thee [whole] wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.” These grains and legumes were also sprouted and, of course, contained no milled flour or preservatives.
The bread that resulted from this Biblical recipe was a relatively low-carb food that contained plenty of amino acids (19 in total) and complete protein, as well as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It certainly wasn’t the highly processed white stuff that, as we’ve come to realize, contributes to the carbohydrate consumption that is the real dietary problem lurking behind diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Imagine how much healthier we’d be today if subsequent generations had decided to restrict grain use to beer rather than bread.
Keep your brain hopping
Of course, along with grain, there is another key ingredient in beer: hops.
Hops grow as a vine and, like many plants, have potent biological effects. For instance, hops are powerful antimicrobial agents. Consequently, they’re added to beer’s yeast-grain mixture during brewing to halt microbial action at just the right times.
Hops also account for the bitter taste of beer. In fact, that’s why the India Pale Ale (IPA) style of beer is so bitter. Originally, it was brewed with added hops to keep it from spoiling on its long, hot passage across the equator from England to India during the days of the British Empire.
But one of the active plant compounds in hops, xanthohumol, has also been studied for its biological effects on the brain. Xanthohumol is a flavonoid. Similar flavonoids are also found in berries, chocolate, and red wine, and have long been studied for their many health benefits—including protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation.
Flavonoids also help give plants their colors. Xanthohumol imparts a yellow color, which helps give beer its familiar amber or golden hue.
As I have written before, brightly colored compounds often signal that a plant has a wide array of potent biological properties. But scientific interest most frequently focuses on flavonoids’ antioxidant potential. That’s true with xanthohumol as well.
Recently, a study on xanthohumol from hops was conducted on brain cells in a lab cell culture that had been exposed to oxidative stress.1
The researchers found that xanthohumol neutralized damaging, oxidant chemical compounds in the cells. It also induced the cells’ cytoprotective genes. These genes shield against oxidative stress-related diseases such as cancer, dementia, and inflammation.
Since oxidative damage to brain cells has been proven to contribute to the development of brain diseases, the researchers believe that xanthohumol can be a potential candidate for fighting neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.
Although, of course, the researchers were quick to point out that their findings don’t mean that consuming large quantities of beer is good for the brain.
Moderation in all things, I always say. In fact, I’ve often wondered if the moderate alcohol levels in beer are one key to its health benefits.
New beer’s alcohol content is “just right” for sparking creativity
According to recent research from the University of Chicago, the average person reaches his or her creative peak with a blood alcohol level of 0.075 percent.2
Let’s round off that number, because researchers are in the bad habit of assuming their findings are much more precise than they could possibly be. So let’s say the maximum creative level is achieved at the rounded 0.08 percent. Interestingly, in every U.S. state, that level is considered legal intoxication in terms of ability to operate a motor vehicle.
Physiologically, in forensic medicine, an 0.08 percent blood alcohol level is also known as being in the “euphoria” state of intoxication. This state typically includes sociability, talkativeness, increased self-confidence, and decreased inhibitions, with some diminution of attention, control, and judgment. There is some loss of motor efficiency, though it’s detected only on finer tests of physical performance.
It would be fair to say that most medical examiners would also agree that there is an increased level of “creativity” that accompanies these other well-known effects. (For a dramatic example, see Cary Grant’s performance as Roger O. Thornhill, in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie North by Northwest.)
Creatively inspired, apparently, by the University of Chicago findings, an advertising agency in Copenhagen worked with Denmark’s Rocket Brewing to design a beer to bring about this creative peak in drinkers.
The beer, dubbed The Problem Solver, is a craft IPA brew (remember how India Pale Ale has lots of hops) with an alcohol content of 7.1% (the “point 1” shows that governments require brewers to be more precise in their brewing than scientists can be in their research).
This beer is stronger than average. So the label comes with a chart showing how many beers, over how long (depending upon your weight) you should consume to attain the magic, “creativity-inspiring” number of 0.075 (let’s call it 0.08) percent.
Of course, there is nothing magic about this beer. Forensic scientists have long developed charts of how many alcoholic drinks per hour lead to various blood alcohol levels. As I have written before, to keep your alcohol levels in the “euphoria” range but below the legal limits, consume only one to two drinks per hour and let your liver keep up.
As for the neuroprotective benefits of beer, you can follow the same moderation guidelines established for other alcoholic beverages. One or two drinks a day should do the trick.
1”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), pp 1521–1531
2 “Finally, a beer that will solve your creative problems,” Fast Company (www.fastcocreate.com), 12/18/14