As the world continues to face an onslaught of new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, misinformation abounds. There are rumors, for instance, that the virus can be cured by alcohol. This information is, of course, false. While drinking beer or alcohol will not prevent infections or cure diseases like COVID-19, it can offer some health benefits. Beer consumption, in particular, has been scientifically proven to reduce the risks of heart failure and diabetes. But that’s not where the benefits end.
Beer has a rich history in traditional Chinese medicine, revered for its nutrient content and some lesser-known health benefits.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a thousand-year old practice that uses mind and body practices (eg, acupuncture and tai chi) and herbal products to manage and treat health ailments, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Without the convenience of modern-day drugstores, people following TCM used certain herbs for their medicinal properties, sometimes combining them with alcohol, including beer.
Tinctures, a medicinal fusion of dissolved herbs and alcohol, are a staple of TCM. Alcohol is used to activate and promote the circulation of healthy qi in the body. But, beer isn’t just used as a chaser for these herbal formulas; it’s also used for the nutritional content and health benefits that its ingredients like hops and malts can offer.
Despite what some may believe, beer does, in fact, contain nutrients. Although the brew is composed of 90% water, it also contains soluble fiber and calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, fluoride, and silicon in trace amounts.
"Beer also has a unique antioxidant profile, with a majority coming from the malt and the remainder from the hops," Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian in the District of Columbia and a beer steward with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, told U.S. News & World Report.
Dietary silicon, one of the nutrients found in beer, has been shown to proffer bone-protecting effects.
“Beer has high silicon content due to the processing of barley and hops,” noted the authors of one review on silicon’s role in the prevention and treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis. “While there are numerous factors that contribute to bone health and to therapy for postmenopausal osteoporosis, silicon is also a mineral that is increasingly recognized as an essential nutrient for bone formation and maintenance.”
For instance, in one study published in Osteoporosis International, moderate beer-drinkers had a 20% lower risk of hip fractures than non-drinkers. In another study, in which researchers investigated the link between alcohol consumption (including beer) and osteoporotic fracture and bone density, they found that 0.5 to 1 drink per day was associated with a lower risk of hip fractures. The authors cautioned that ≥ 2 drinks per day was associated with increased hip fracture risk.
Bitter acids found in alcohol can help improve digestion. But, it all depends on the ethanol content. According to the authors of one article, “Alcoholic beverages with low ethanol content (beer and wine) are strong stimulants of gastric acid secretion and gastrin release, the effect of beer being equal to the maximal acid output… The powerful stimulants of gastric acid secretion present in beer, which are yet to be identified, are thermostable and anionic polar substances.” Gastric acid is essential for digesting food and regulating healthy gut bacteria.
The authors noted, however, that drinks “with a higher ethanol content (whisky, gin, cognac) do not stimulate gastric acid secretion or release of gastrin.”
These findings were supported in a more recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in which researchers assessed five types of German and Austrian beer. They found that each brew stimulated gastric acid secretion, and the more bitter acids a beer contained, the greater the response.
While some researchers warn against tossing back a nightcap, there is evidence to suggest that nonalcoholic beer with hops could actually help you sleep better. Hops have been shown to exert sedative effects. In one study, researchers found that women who drank nonalcoholic beer with hops, paired with dinner, had decreased anxiety levels and better sleep quality.
Results from another study corroborated the soporific effects of beer hops. These researchers, who followed 30 university students for 14 days, found that non-alcoholic beer consumption at dinner time improved the quality of sleep at night in the sample.
According to some researchers, beer could help protect our largest and most vulnerable organ: the skin.
“Beer, as well as hops, can be great ingredients for skin care. Hops have anti-anxiety properties, as well as anti-inflammatory properties, which is why we use hop extracts in skin care,” Cindy Jones, PhD, a cosmetic biochemist at Colorado Aromatics, told Healthline.
“Malt found in beer exfoliates, stabilizes collagen and elastin, improves microcirculation, and prevents premature aging skin. The yeast found in beer is rich in B vitamins, which help moisturize the skin,” she added.
It’s important to note that clinical support for these claims is limited. Noted the authors of one article published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology:
“[H]ops contain an abundance of polyphenols…These compounds have been shown to possess various anti‐bacterial, anti‐inflammatory, anti‐oxidative, anti‐angiogenic, anti‐melanogenic, anti‐osteoporotic and anti‐carcinogenic effects. Epidemiological studies on the association between beer drinking and skin disease are limited while direct evidence of beer compounds in clinical application is lacking. Potential uses of these substances in dermatology may include treatment of atopic eczema, contact dermatitis, pigmentary disorders, skin infections, skin ageing, skin cancers and photoprotections…Further studies are needed to determine the bioavailability of these compounds and their possible beneficial health effects when taken by moderate beer consumption.”
The dose makes the poison
If you’re using beer in the context of herbal medicine, remember to use it for what it is: a treatment. That means sticking to the recommended consumption guidelines of no more than 1 drink (12 oz) daily for women and for men over age 65, and no more than 2 drinks daily for men age 65 and younger.