Ask Gerda: Is Beer Healthier than Wine?
Gerda Endemann, our senior director of science and research, has a BS in nutrition from UC Berkeley, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, and a passion for cherry-picking from our wellness shop. She spends a lot of her time interpreting research—established and emerging. You’ll find some of her deep dives into health conditions in our growing library of articles called goop PhD. You can send your own questions for Gerda to [email protected]
Dear goop, When we go out, my friends act as if they’re making a superior choice by drinking wine, when all I want is a cold beer. You know—resveratrol, the French paradox, and all that. I find beer soothing, and I handle it better than wine. Which is better? —Michaela M.
Hi, Michaela. Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Beer is an amazing invention—full of compounds with demonstrated health benefits. Wine is similar, in that both are complex soups of bioactive chemicals, some of which may make you feel good and some of which may not. It’s an individual thing. I attribute my bad reaction to red wine to histamine, which can cause flushing and headache depending on how well your body is able to detoxify it. The tyramine in ale may do the same. Of course, the alcohol in either can give you a hangover.
Personally, I’ve had a rocky relationship with beer. When I was a kid, I would get carsick, and my dad would try to get me to take a sip of beer to calm my stomach. I hated the taste, and this was probably what caused me to avoid beer for much of my adult life. He wasn’t a lush: Dad kept one beer in a cooler in the trunk to have with a picnic lunch on all-day sales trips. The brand he favored was a smooth dark beer called Bavarian. My best guess is that it was from the Bavarian Brewing Company in Kentucky, now defunct.
Anyway, all this is to explain why deep down, I associate beer with healing properties, especially for digestion. And a few years ago, when my fiancé taught me how to watch baseball and drink beer, I finally discovered its pleasures. I don’t handle alcohol very well, but a moderate amount of a smooth dark beer seems to agree with me. These days, when I say I’ll have “a health beer,” it’s understood that I’m referring to Modelo Negra.
Wine has gotten more press, but whether it’s beer or wine, up to one drink a day for women and up to two per day for men is associated with lower risks of heart disease and diabetes. It’s probably a combination of alcohol, phytochemicals (plant chemicals), and fermentation products that is responsible for the benefits. Drinking spirits is associated with similar but less significant benefits.
Note: This is not a prescription. You do not need to drink alcohol for good health, and it’s of course wise to avoid it if you don’t handle it well. Some researchers argue that for any amount of alcohol, the cons outweigh the pros. Alcohol consumption is linked to increased mortality from many causes, and even the lowest level of alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of cancer, including breast cancer and oral cancers.
I will assume you know all about the cons, though. And here I’ll share what I’ve learned about beer’s unique properties, beginning with its hops content. Hops are flowers from the hop vine, and they have been used medicinally for thousands of years to support sleep, digestion, and gynecological health. Before hops harvesting and processing was mechanized, it was noted that people became pretty sleepy while doing this work. Maybe my dad thought beer would calm my stomach because of the sedative effects that hops have. Components of hops have even been demonstrated to increase calming parasympathetic nerve activity.
Hops contain numerous bioactive compounds, including unique acids, essential oils, and polyphenols. The hops acids (humulones and lupulones) are important for beer’s characteristic bitter taste. All beer contains hops, although amounts vary. I wish I liked the strong, bitter taste of a hoppy IPA that has more of these compounds. Hops acids and polyphenols—such as catechins, epicatechins, proanthocyanidins, and quercetin—have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities.
During fermentation, yeast metabolizes phytochemicals, making the mixture more complex. And after drinking beer, our gut microbes can carry out further transformations. For example, hops—like many plants—contain compounds with weak estrogen-like activity. Metabolism by gut bacteria can greatly increase this estrogenic activity. This may be desirable or not. Female hops harvesters complained of menstrual irregularities. On the other hand, there’s preliminary evidence that the estrogenic compounds might help prevent postmenopausal loss of bone.
Clinical studies have shed light on ways that beer might be promoting cardiovascular health. I bet it’s easy to recruit participants when drinking beer is required. In some particularly revealing research, men were asked to drink beer, gin, or alcohol-free beer—equivalent to about two drinks—daily for four weeks. Those drinking alcohol had improvements in blood chemistry, mainly in their blood fats. But in the alcohol-free beer drinkers, there were different effects, such as decreases in inflammation.
In this research, beer, but not gin, had another interesting effect. The body can repair damaged arteries using stem cells from the blood. These stem cells can repopulate and repair the lining of arteries. Researchers found that the number of stem cells in the blood increased after subjects drank beer or alcohol-free beer but not after they drank gin. The researchers’ conclusion was that beer may have benefits for heart health that spirits don’t. (Before getting too excited, remember that this stem cell research needs to be repeated by others to see if it holds up.)
To get back to digestion, although it doesn’t explain why beer might calm a queasy stomach, research has shed light on how beer can support a healthy gut. One reason hops are added to beer is because they act as preservatives, helping to prevent the growth of undesirable microbes. So it makes sense that hops might affect our gut microbiota, and beer has been reported to promote desirable gut bacteria. In return, gut bacteria help break down polyphenols to make them more bioavailable for us. From animal research, there are indications that hops can improve gut health by promoting healthy barrier function and reducing inflammation and that hops can improve metabolism and blood sugar regulation.
If you want more happy news, beer is also a source of vitamins and minerals. It provides niacin, folate, choline, B vitamins, and a little bit of magnesium and potassium. Some beers contain significant amounts of chromium, a trace mineral needed for insulin function.
And of course, beer is a perfect accompaniment to many foods. It doesn’t get much better than pizza and beer. My fiancé was ecstatic when I took him out to Mentone for his birthday. It’s fancy for pizza but still a cheap date. Here are a few suggestions to help set the mood for your next beer and pizza night in.
Gerda’s Beer-Night Picks
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.