We have drunk beer for an awfully long time. Click on the link to an article in National Geographic about a 9,000 year old beer recipe. And, as with all alcoholic drinks, a little beer or lager does carry definite health benefits. It is the alcohol itself that does most of us good. Both beer and wine stimulate digestion in the stomach, but only beer stimulates the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes1 . If the beer is bottle aged, it contains more yeast, so is more nutritious. As far as I can tell the unique plus side of beer ends there. The J-shaped curve of fatness related to alcohol consumption does not apply to beer2 . And most beers and lagers contain gluten from the malt which is a molecule that is hard to digest and causes many problems – the principal of which is excessive farting. Sadly this effect is due to the gluten causing problems in the gut, not to the gas in the beer. As well as causing flatulence, there is the question as to whether drinking a lot of beer helps the man grow MOOBS 3 . Now there is much argument about whether the hops in the beer are feminising. Certainly raw hops are – but I came across a couple of studies that implied that this effect was fairly negligible in beer4 . If in doubt and you can cope with the wind, a beer to look out for is herb based, called Gruit Ale. These beers are based on ancient testosterone building recipes, the theory being that the church changed the herbs to hops since hops induce sleepiness and lack of sexual desire. Click on the link to read more and make of all this what you will. But the general benefits of alcohol consumption listed in the blog, the benefits of drinking alcohol do apply to beer – and to spirits, which is where we go to next.
There several problems with spirits and the first is quantity. Since 1 shot of a 40% spirit is one unit, then it is very easy to over shoot amount needed to gain the moderate drinking benefits. And the other problem can be the mixer drink. Unless it is soda water, the mixer drink is either very sugary or filled with artificial sweeteners, neither of which do us much good and, bluntly, make us fat. Go to the footnote to find out ways of coping with aspartame. 5
One problem associated with spirit drinking is more individual and this is the effects of carbonation of a drink and alcohol blood levels. Does the fizz make the booze hit the head faster? There is a study published in Science Direct that gives food for thought6 I am only working on the abstract, but nevertheless 21 subjects, 12 male and 9 female on 3 separate occasions were given 3 different drinks and were then breathalysed over the next 4 hours to see absorption rate. Drink A was neat vodka 37.5%, drink B was vodka and still water 18.7% and drink C was vodka and carbonated water 18.7%. 20 out of the 21 subjects absorbed the dilute alcohol faster than the neat vodka. 14 out of 21 absorbed the carbonated vodka more quickly with 7 showing either no change or slower absorption. So from this very small study it does seem that absorption of neat spirits is slower and carbonation of a drink has an individual effect on rate of absorption. However, it is worth bearing in mind that even neat spirits do get absorbed and to precede them by drinking beer will lead to a big build up of the noxious substance acetaldehyde, produced during the metabolisation of alcohol, because the body can only metabolise alcohol at a fairly slow rate.
Another point regularly raised about spirits is their hangover making abilities. According to John L Ingraham7 traditionally the blame is placed on things called congeners. Now these are substances produced during the fermentation process and give wines, beers and spirits much of their complexity and flavour. Of course, they are more concentrated in spirits – with the least amount in Vodka. During the distillation process of making spirits, a particular type of congener called Fusel Oil is produced. The name is taken from an old German word meaning ‘bad spirits’. It is a mixture of higher alcohols8 and present in the dark spirits, adding further complexity to brandys and bourbons, for example. There was an experiment done in the Boston, Massachusetts area using 95 students or graduates in 2009 comparing the effects on mental performance, sleep and hangover severity from drinking vodka or bourbon -ie looking at the effects of congeners.9 The participants were already heavy drinkers and drank about 6 standard drinks after a meal. It was found that those who drank the bourbon suffered worse hangover symptoms. But apart from that, both bourbon and vodka reduced sleep efficiency, leading to more wakefulness in the second half of the night, both reduced ability to maintain sustained attention and slowed reaction time; the conclusion was that the biggest culprit of a hangover is the alcohol itself. Incidentally there was little gender difference in the results.
So neither beer nor spirits can aid weight loss. The gluten in beer can make you fart. The congeners in brandy can give the most awful hangover. But any type of alcohol in excess will turn your brain to fog the next day as well as pickling your liver.
Next alcohol blog will have a look at hangovers. Avoiding them is simple – don’t drink too much. Short blog, hey?
- Hoynal F, Flores MC, Radley S, Velenzuela JE. Effects of alcohol and alcoholic beverages on meal-stimulating pancreatic secretion in humans. Gastroenterol 1990;98:191-6 [↩]
- Lukasiewicz E, Mennen LI, Bertrais S, et al. Alcohol intake in relation to body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio: the importance of type of alcoholic beverage. Public Health Nutr 2005;8:315-20. Abstract. This study found that wine was best for improving the waist/hip ratio in men and women and lowering their BMI but with a J -shaped curve. Beer had no good effect and spirits had a linear effect – the more of it we drink, the fatter we are. [↩]
- Moobs – man boobs [↩]
- For example Fenselau C, Talalay P. Is oestrogenic activity present in hops? Food and Cosmetics toxicology. Vol 11, issue 4. 1973 p597-603 [↩]
- A brief point about Aspartame. If choosing a drink sweetened with Aspartame, make sure protein is eaten just before drinking the drink. Aspartame is neurotoxic, but competes with protein at the receptor sites in the brain, and loses. [↩]
- Roberts C, Robinsons SP. Alcohol concentration and carbonation of drinks: the effect on blood alcohol levels. J Forensic Leg Med. 2007 Oct; 14(7):398-405 Abstract [↩]
- Prof microbiology, ret, Univ California and author of book March of the microbes, sighting the unseen. Harvard Univ press [↩]
- with a greater molecular weight than ethanol [↩]
- Rohsenow DJ, Howland J et al. Intoxication with bourbon versus vodka: effects on hangovers, sleep and next day neurocognitive performance in young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and experimental research. Vol 34, Issue 3 pg 509-518. Mar 2010 [↩]