Could This Popular, Bitter Drink Have Healing Powers?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on November 6, 2017Written by Allison Krupp on November 6, 2017
beer

Overview

Reaching for a brew at the end of a long day is something of an ancient ceremony. Many people — from a 1400s monk to ’80s Bruce Springsteen to me and perhaps you — find it relaxing to squash stress and anxiety over hops and alcohol.

We recharge. We regroup. We have another round.

But if you’re one of those “hoppy or bust” microbrewery frequenters, imbibing could potentially have benefits far beyond stress relief.

Hops, or Humulus lupus, are one of the four major ingredients in beer. They’re the dried flowers that offer a bitter, almost grassy taste. This flavor can become flowery or tropical, based on their variety and any additional ingredients in the beer, like malts.

Medical Daily reported that due to their high phytoestrogen content, hops have been used in herbal medicine since before the 1500s. Phytoestrogen is a dietary estrogen. It may treat or prevent certain types of cancers, boost heart health, and even rev your libido. Some even wonder if hops may be responsible for your boyfriend’s man boobs. But I digress. The real question is, can beers be medicinal?

Tracing roots back to traditional Chinese medicine

Dr. Vincent Caruso, a New Jersey-based chiropractor, looks to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for advice on using hops and barley for medicinal purposes. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, TCM dates back to the early days of Taoism, about 2,500 years ago. It’s often used as a complementary health approach.

Without a drugstore in sight, people put their trust in their herb garden for medicinal plants, which were also added to their rice brews. These included the anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting plants such as wormwood and mugwort.

Taking a cue from TCM, Dr. Caruso tells Healthline, “Hops are helpful as sedatives, and are used to treat insomnia, depressive symptoms, nervous tension, and anxiety. Barley can also strengthen the spleen, aid the gall bladder, and detoxify.”

And when it comes to hoppy beers, American breweries have your back.

American hops, which are a kind of flavor-punch-in-the-face strong, are generally found in greater concentration in India pale ales (IPAs) or American pale ales.

Breweries categorize beers with International Bitterness Units, or IBU. The IBU scale is between zero and, technically, infinity. Less-bitter American lagers rest between 8 and 18 IBUs. Double and triple IPAs come in around 120 IBUs. Traditionally, higher IBUs translate to more hops, and in this case, greater benefits.

To put this in perspective, experienced brewers at homebrewtalk.com say they need as many as 8 ounces of hops to make 5 1/2 gallons of IPA or American pale ale. Lighter ales need as few as 1 ounce, which is quite a difference!

A beer a day keeps the hip fractures away

Back in the ’80s, scientists discovered traces of antibiotic tetracycline in a 1,600-year-old Nubian mummy. Tetracycline is known to bind with calcium before being deposited into the bones. It’s often used in osteoporotic treatments.

Biological anthropologist George Armelagos told Seeker, who reported on the original story, “They may not have known what tetracycline was, but they certainly knew something was making them feel better.” In fact, he theorized that this ancient population drank antibiotic-laced beer from the age of 2.

Further research from the International Journal of Endocrinology says that modern-brewed beer is potentially beneficial for bone growth, citing the dietary version of silicon as medicine for postmenopausal osteoporosis. In fact, a large study from 2000 analyzed 7,598 women and found that moderate drinkers (one to three glasses of wine per day) had higher bone density. Another analysis in the American Journal of Medicine found:

  • 0.5 to 1 drink per day correlated to a lower risk for hip fractures
  • 1 to 2 drinks per day made no difference than those who didn’t drink
  • more than 2 drinks per day increased risk of hip fractures

We can’t ignore the other health benefits of beer

Beer isn’t just empty calories. There’s a rather unique makeup of nutritional values, such as:

  • antioxidants
  • phosphorus
  • calcium
  • potassium
  • zinc
  • manganese
  • calcium
  • fluoride
  • silicon

All this could make your choice of beer more nutritional than your average rum and coke.

It could help you sleep better

As you may know, feeling a little bleary-eyed after a few hoppy beers is actually pretty common. A 2012 study in the journal PLOS One examined the effects of nonalcoholic beer with hops. Researchers found that women who drank nonalcoholic beer with hops with dinner had decreased anxiety and better sleep quality.

It could help your digestive distress

Opting for beer in the midst of digestive distress, or just an overly large meal, may be a good way of getting relief.

Dr. Caruso tells Healthline, “The hops in beers and ales can alleviate digestive disorders,” due to its high content of fiber and ethanol. This stimulates pancreatic enzymes, gastrin, and gastric acid, which churns food through and out of your system.

It could help your skin

Cindy Jones, PhD, a cosmetic biochemist at Colorado Aromatics, has an outside-in approach to medicinal brews: for them to aid our biggest organ of all, 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,” she says.

What if beer is the anti-aging secret weapon we’ve been searching for all along? “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,” Jones says.

But this benefit is all about the topical application. Jones likes to head to local microbreweries to teach beer enthusiasts about the benefits of beer for the skin, including how to do a DIY beer facial. Here are her instructions:

At the end of the day, beer is more like a supplement, less like a treatment

Of course, alcohol is a tricky beast, apt to drown out medicinal qualities with overindulging. It’s a fine line between moderation and drinking too much, so it’s best to stick to guidelines:

  • one drink a day for women and for men older than 65
  • two drinks a day for men 65 or younger

For beer, one drink is 12 fluid ounces.

“Imbibing too much of any spirit, even if it has ingredients that can boost the function of our organ systems, can be a significant drain on the liver. It can result in a reduction in our overall health and well-being,” Dr. Caruso reminds us.

So treat beer like you would medication. Follow your doctor’s orders and stick to the recommended dosage.


Allison Krupp is an American writer, editor, and ghostwriting novelist. Between wild, multicontinental adventures, she resides in Berlin, Germany. Check out her website here.

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