By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Most of us have been there. You wake up only wishing you hadn’t because you’re slogging through a booze-induced haze. Blame it on the beer festival, the ABVs that snuck up on you, or the special birthday party. Nobody enjoys a hangover. Moreover, decades of research have shown that heavy drinking, particularly over a long period of time, increases mortality risk. Too much alcohol could lead to liver disease and several types of cancer. But studies on the effects of moderate drinking have been more complicated. Part of that is due to the problem of how truthfully subjects self-report. Some research also ends up conflicting. And since we’re in a state that thrives off of a strong beer culture, it’s worth exploring the connection between alcohol, some of beer’s basic ingredients, and your health.
Moderate Drinking & the J-Shaped Curve
Whether it’s beer, wine or spirits, any alcohol in moderation may prove to have health benefits, according to Dr. Thomas Shellhammer, professor of fermentation science and food science at Oregon State University. For healthy adults, moderation means one serving a day for women and up to two servings a day for men under the age of 65. The Mayo Clinic has classified 12 fluid ounces of beer as one drink. Of course, factors such as age, body mass index, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and even education should also be taken into account when discussing health and alcohol intake. However, moderate consumption can result “in a decrease in mortality due to cardiovascular disease. And cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of folks in the U.S.,” explained Dr. Shellhammer.
The Mayo Clinic reported that restrained consumption can possibly reduce the risk of an ischemic stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is restricted due to narrowed or blocked arteries. There may also be a diminished likelihood of developing diabetes associated with controlled alcohol use. A 2004 meta-analysis of previous studies published on the American Diabetes Association website determined that moderate drinkers were 30 percent less likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
Since the late 1970s, research amassed on the benefits of moderate intake led to the development of what epidemiologists and medical professionals call the “J-shaped curve” regarding mortality. Dr. Shellhammer described that the curve on a graph would dip below the x-axis before rising again, creating a shape that resembles the letter “J.” The x-axis represents the number of alcohol servings a person or population would consume. The y-axis is then the risk of mortality. “A teetotaler has some fixed amount or average risk of mortality. As alcohol consumption increases, that risk of mortality decreases. It actually starts falling down below that x-axis and at some point out there it starts coming back up,” said Dr. Shellhammer.
A study published in 2013 by the Research Society on Alcoholism seems to reaffirm the data on moderate health benefits. Researchers analyzed the results of the National Health Interview Survey from 1997 to 2001. That information was then paired with the latest release of the NHIS Linked Mortality Files, which provided follow-up data through the end of 2006. Results showed that more than a third of the drinkers recorded heavy use. Mortality risk grew as drinking increased, where ultimately daily excessive users had “an almost two-fold risk of death compared with abstainers,” researchers reported. Moderate drinking was connected to decreased mortality, but the health benefits “peaked around two non-heavy occasions per week,” the authors concluded.
Of course the health benefits may not be felt by everyone who drinks alcohol, even moderately. But research does indicate there can be positive implications. Apart from considering the body and beer, though, breaking down some of the health research on hops and barley can lead to a greater appreciation for the components of your brew.
Hops and Health
Many beer lovers, especially those in the Pacific Northwest, love the flavor and aroma hops add to beer. But those little cones have a lot more to offer in terms of medicinal qualities. Dr. Fred Stevens, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at OSU and principal investigator at the Linus Pauling Institute, had a role in much of this groundbreaking research. OSU’s laboratory was the first to report that the main flavonoid, or compound synthesized by a plant, found in hops has anti-inflammatory and cancer chemopreventive properties. That flavonoid is called xanthohumol and never really turned brewers’ heads because it has no taste, according to OSU’s website. During his post-doctorate period at the university in 1995, Dr. Stevens started looking into the chemistry of hops. With the assistance of other professors, he was able to isolate and research xanthohumol. The team found that in cancer cells, it gives rise to one type of enzyme that detoxifies cancer-causing agents. It also stops another enzyme from activating carcinogens.
There’s evidence showing xanthohumol has the potential to prevent one particular type of disease: prostate cancer. Dr. Stevens published a paper with another researcher that showed how the flavonoid gets in the way of a particular protein’s signaling. That protein just happens to regulate 400 genes connected to inflammation, which is an important factor in the development of prostate cancer, Dr. Stevens shared on OSU’s website.
Similarly, a medicine company called Metagenics announced in 2012 that an acid compound in hops could stop the hardening of arteries during the early stages of the condition. That same compound also demonstrated an ability to prevent weight gain and improve intestinal health with mice on high-fat diets in studies out of a university in Belgium. Additionally, hops might help with menopause. Dr. Shellhammer explained they contain a compound that’s phytoestrogenic — essentially it’s a chemical created by plants that acts similar to estrogen. He recalled a company selling a hop product as a more natural estrogen supplement.
Barley and Beta-glucans
Hops have been more of the lead singer in recent years while barley plays backup, but this beer ingredient boasts its own health rewards. Dr. Shellhammer pointed out that barley has a fair amount of beta-glucans, a type of soluble fiber, which can reduce blood serum cholesterol levels. Some food barleys have higher levels of beta-glucans than malting barleys. Most brewers actually want barley with lower levels of beta-glucans because they can lead to difficulties when making beer. The malting process degrades beta-glucans, so you won’t find levels beneficial to your health in the final product or even the wort.
There’s likely much more research to come on the health effects of alcohol and the ingredients in beer, especially as technology continues to improve. OSU is sure to be an important contributor to the growing pool of knowledge, putting the state of Oregon at the lead of an important discussion.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.