At Valentine’s Day we heard from colleague Stacey May about our favorite medicine chocolate. Now another saint’s day has arrived and many of us will celebrate all things Irish, including a Saint Patrick’s Day favorite: Beer. Although we may think of beer as Irish or German, beer was brewed thousands of years ago, including in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Nubia. Beer’s use has long been associated with some positive health effects. Recent anthropological research suggests that ancient Nubians received the antibiotic tetracycline via beer as the result of Streptomyces bacteria that made it into the fermented mix.
So what positive health effects does modern beer offer? It is well established that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower incidence of coronary heart disease, though we do not know whether this association is causal or correlative. Some of that research indicates that alcohol itself—whether in beer, wine, or liquor—may prevent clot formation in narrowed coronary arteries and may increase HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels. Immoderate alcohol use, however, can quickly override these positive effects, of course.
And what’s healthy about beer itself? Historically, beer provided a relatively safe drinking source, compared with potentially contaminated drinking water. Nowadays, we usually have numerous sanitary beverages, but we still like beer, and while it isn’t high on the scale of healthy foods, it does have some unique pharmaceutical properties, most of which come from the hops.
Starting in the Middle Ages, European brewers began adding hops to stabilize fermentation and to balance the sweetness of the barley malt. Perhaps unbeknownst to those brewers, hops also possesses many medicinal properties. These include sedative effects, anti-inflammatory effects, and estrogenic benefits. And recently, it has come to light that certain constituents of hops, called prenylated flavonoids, may provide anticancer benefits. Researchers at the University of Ghent have shown that xanthohumol inhibits the growth of human prostate cancer cells. And an examination of the biological activities of xanthohumol indicates that the compound may provide anti-cancer effects more generally.
It has been said (but not by Ben Franklin) that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Well, it looks like beer can add to our health a bit, too. So if you will raise a beer this holiday, then Sláinte! And remember to take your medicine in moderation.