Study highlights beer's impact on mental wellbeing

A recent study by a Spanish research group has found that occasional and moderate beer drinkers have better mental and self-perceived health and social support compared to abstainers.

The study by the Public Health and Epidemiology Research Group from Spain’s University of Murcia studied 33,185 adults and the results have been highlighted by the Brewers Association of New Zealand.

Brewers Association Executive Director, Dylan Firth, said this was one of a number of studies that shows benefits associated with moderate consumption of beer.

“This as well as other studies show, regular beer consumption boosts the gut bacteria and reduces diabetes and heart disease risks. It also helps fight dementia through reducing brain toxic substances.”

“According to the study, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as drinking one pint (five per cent) of beer per person per day,” Firth said.

“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.”

Is the “J-Curve” flattening?

Firth said the research aligns with a range of meta-studies that show low doses of alcohol can improve 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,” Firth said in the release.

His comments refer to a number of studies that purport to show a “J-curve” in which alcohol abstainers show a slightly elevated risk of heart disease, with moderate drinkers having the lowest risk, with risks growing significantly the more you drink. Plotted on a graph, the results describe a J shape.

However, a recent Slate article by award-winning science journalist Tim Requarth has highlighted that medical opinion is gradually eroding from the days that the so-called “French Paradox” saw red wines marketed as having health benefits.

A number of studies and academic reviews have seen the overall health benefits of moderate consumption questioned, despite potential cardiovascular and other benefits, given growing evidence of alcohol’s risks associated with cancer.

Even so, the article – which is highly worth reading in full – concludes that while recent studies may see the “radiant aura” of good health fade, there is a balanced message to be taken away.

The article concludes with a quote from Sarah Hartz, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine who lead a team that published a paper titled Daily Drinking Is Associated with Increased Mortality.

“The main message is not that drinking is bad. It’s that drinking isn’t good. Those are two different things,” Hartz said in the article.

“Life has risks associated with it, and I think drinking is one of them.”

Factor in the social benefits

Brews News reached out to Tim Requarth to ask whether studies on social and mental health benefits had been included in his article and he said that the non-biological benefits of drinking are less studied.

“I touched upon the potential social/mental health benefits of alcohol in a draft of the article, in the final version we ultimately decided to restrict the scope to physical health effects (it was long enough as it stood!),” he said in an email.

“I see two ways to look at it: 1) The J-shaped curve for all-cause mortality is real, and the social/mental health aspects of alcohol consumption partially explain this relationship.

“2) Alcohol offers no physical health benefits, but some people may decide that the social/mental health advantages outweigh the minor physical risks,” he wrote.

“Whether or not the J-shaped curve is real, any potential individual risks/benefits are so small that I would certainly continue drinking because I enjoy its social benefits.”

Requarth pointed out that the Spanish study was funded by the Brewer’s Association of Spain through The Spanish Forum for Beer and Lifestyle Research.

“Regarding the [Spanish study] I’d consider it interesting but not particularly strong evidence,” he wrote.

“The sampling is solid, but the reliance on self-assessed health rather than actual health outcomes is a significant limitation.

“Additionally, I would have liked to see results for all drinkers, not just those who consume beer. By excluding 20 per cent of the sample, I feel that they’ve potentially limited their analysis.”

He also noted that there is debate amongst researchers about whether abstainers are the best reference group, as they may differ significantly from even occasional drinkers due to the reasons that they abstain.

While the Spanish study may be far from compelling, it highlights that a measured view of the benefits or risks associated with moderate alcohol consumption must include the social aspects that come with it.

Research into the reasons that we drink in the first place, such as that by Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford’s Experimental Psychology department, suggests that humans embraced alcohol consumption because it has social benefits that relate both to health and social bonding, in moderation.

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