Beer buffs, rejoice: despite the dreaded beer belly, the occasional brew may actually improve your physical and mental wellbeing, according to new research.
A study by public health researchers at the University of Murcia in Spain has shown that a moderate consumption of beer is associated with good physical and mental health, as well as increased social support.
The team assessed the associations of beer consumption (a low-dose alcoholic beverage) with self-perceived health, daily functioning, mental health, and social support using data from two Spanish National Health Surveys in 2012 and 2017, comprising 33,185 adults. They found that people who consume the beverage in non-excessive amounts are more likely to have better indicators of physical, mental and emotional health, compared to both former drinkers and teetotallers.
The analyses were adjusted for sex, age, occupational social class, educational level, place of residence, part-time physical activity, dietary information, smoking, and body mass index.
"Occasional alcohol drinkers and moderate beer drinkers, compared to abstainers and former drinkers, were more likely to describe better subjective, mental, and socio-affective health, and fewer limitations in daily activity," said the authors of the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nutrients in March.
"In contrast, former drinkers were associated with worse indicators of self-perceived health, physical health, mental health, and social support than abstainers. Alcoholic beer consumption showed a J-shaped relationship with self-perceived, physical, mental, and social-emotional health, with better values at moderate levels.
"More research is needed in the future... despite the association of light to moderate beer consumption with good general health status in the Spanish adult population."
In their introduction, the Public Health and Epidemiology Research Group noted that a large body of observational studies have suggested one to two standard units of alcohol - 10g of alcohol per drink - for men, and between zero and one standard unit of drink for women, per day, may reduce the risk of all-cause mortality due to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, they reiterated that other more robust studies have shown the benefits of alcohol consumption may have been overestimated, or even negligible in some cases - as cited in the 2016 Alcohol Global Burden Disease Study, "the only safe dose of alcohol is zero".
The researchers went on to note that beer - a relatively low-alcohol beverage at around 5 percent - influences a wide range of health aspects, such as the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the nervous system and mental illness.
"In this regard, the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption have been attributed to changes in blood lipid profiles, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and even anti-cancer effects on immune system function, improved insulin resistance, and reductions in physiological stress levels as measured by the hormones cortisol and ACTH," the researchers said.
"In addition to these alcohol-related aspects, beer also has its own specific non-alcoholic components, including minerals (phosphorus, magnesium, potassium), vitamins (B group), and polyphenols such as xanthohumol from hops, with antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-viral properties, or the reduction of the risk of osteoporosis by increasing bone mineral density."
The authors of the study also noted that beer in moderate amounts can have a positive impact on mental health due to the social nature of drinking, at least in Mediterranean countries such as Spain - which could combat social isolation in older adults.
"Social isolation has recently been considered to be of great public health concern and importance. Social deprivation may be associated with harmful lifestyle behaviors and, vice versa, strong social networks, both in quantity and quality, may favour less harmful habits, such as moderate alcohol consumption.
"People's alcohol consumption and drinking patterns are rooted in contextual and cultural factors... in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, alcohol consumption, and especially beer consumption, involves a large social context within meals and a more moderate intake.
"[This] in turn, could be beneficial not only for mental health, but also for physical and emotional health, going some way to explaining the possible health effects of alcohol consumption in people over 40 (in whom social isolation is more prevalent)."
Commenting on the findings, Dylan Firth - the executive director of the New Zealand Brewers Association - noted that the research aligns with a number of meta studies that indicate low doses of alcohol can be beneficial for heart health and the immune system.
"We know from years of research that there is a J-shaped curve when it comes to alcohol, and that there are positive health outcomes for moderate drinkers vs those who abstain," he said in a statement.
"The study concluded alcoholic beer consumption showed a J-shaped relationship with self-perceived, physical, mental, and social-emotional health, with better values at moderate levels. It also highlighted that beer, the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world, usually has a relatively low alcohol content compared to other alcoholic beverages. So cheers to that."
The 2020 Alcohol Global Burden Disease Study recently updated the evidence in 2022 with new results that maintain while the safest dose of alcohol for those aged under 40 is zero, there are modest benefits in those aged over 40 regarding cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke - regardless of sex - at amounts of 0.114–1.870 standard units of alcoholic beverage per day.
"While these observational studies remain inconclusive, on the other hand, the experimental literature has strongly pointed to the benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption and the harmful properties of excessive consumption, also focusing on specific types of alcoholic beverages such as wine or beer," the authors added.
The full study can be viewed online.