People Holding Mugs of Beer

Beer is aptly referred to as the ‘common man’s drink’. In comparison to wine and liquor, it has been the most preferred alcoholic beverage. As per 2010 Gallup polls on the preferred choice of beverage in the US, 41% of US citizens who were of drinking age preferred beer, while only 32% and 21% of them preferred wine and liquor. Globally, WHO’s recent report on alcohol consumption shows that the beer consumption has been increasing, while consumption of alcohol, wine and spirits in particular has been decreasing over the same period. As a result, while in the 1960s the consumption ratio between beer and wine was approximately double; it raised more than six times that size by 2005. The Plato Logic Limited (a market research company) forecasted a global increase in the beer consumption level from 1.8 billion hectoliters consumed in 2009 to over 2.3 billion hectoliters in 2020.

Composition of Beer

With the present high consumption level and its anticipated higher importance in the future, it is imperative to understand the effect of beer on our digestive system. For this, we need to first understand the composition of beer.  In comparison to wine and liquor, beer has the least percentage of alcohol. 90% of it consists of water. The percentage of alcohol is approximately 5% and comes from the fermentation of ‘Malt sugar’. In a majority of the cases, barley is used as the source for the malt sugar. Wheat, maize, oat or spelt can also be used as a source for malt sugar.  The flavor in the beer is due to ‘hops’ which are basically female flower clusters of a hop species, Humulus lupulus. ‘Hops’ are also understood to act as a ‘stability agent’ in the beer. At the bottom of the beer glass, you will notice muddiness. This is nothing but yeast, which is a unicellular micro-organism added to ferment malt sugar to alcohol.

Effect of Beer on the Digestive System

Studies have reported that drinking beer in moderation has multiple beneficial effects on the health. For example, Vitamin B6 found in beer has been shown to have positive effects on the cardiovascular system. Beer is a rich source of potassium and magnesium which reduces stone formations in kidneys. Likewise, people who show moderation in drinking beer have been shown to lower blood pressure. However, binge drinking and over consumption of beer also has serious side-effects. The National Institute on Alcohol, Abuse, and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that in the US each year, more than 11,000 people die from alcoholic cirrhosis. Other serious side-effects due to the beer consumption are heartburn and pancreatitis.

Several effects of the beer consumption, both positive and negative, have been reported on the digestive system. Moderate drinking has several positive effects of which some are discussed below:

  1. Anti-Carcinogenic Properties - Xanthohumol, a prenylated flavonoid compound found in hops which are used for flavoring beer, have been shown in scientific studies to have chemo-preventive properties for liver cells and colon cells. Polyphenols, of which beer is a good source, are well-established chemo-preventive agents.
  2. Digestive Property - The soluble fibers present in the beer cause cleansing of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which in turn increases overall health. Furthermore, several components present in beer stimulate secretion of gastrin, gastric acid, cholecystokinin and pancreatic enzymes that helps in proper digestion.
  3. Reduces Food Poisoning -  Studies have shown that taking two beers with a meal cuts the chance of developing food poisoning by half.

Positive effects are limited to the moderate usage. Overdrinking, binge drinking or heavy drinking damages the digestive system. Some of the negative effects are:

  1. Carcinogenic Properties - Contrary to moderation, over drinking results in a high alcohol level which causes extensive liver damage. Consequently, it leads to liver cancer.
  2. Inflammation of GI Tract - Alcohol causes cytokine production which results in inflammation. Thus, alcohol as it travels down the system inflames the organs it comes in contact with. Constant inflammation may cause bleeding and eventually lead to cancer.
  3. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) - Food from the stomach does not normally pass back into the esophagus due to the lower esophageal sphincter. High levels of alcohol can cause digestive disorders like GERD, and cause the sphincter to allow food back into the esophagus, which results in pain and discomfort.
  4. Beer Belly - This is the most visible characteristic of a beer drinking person. High alcohol results in the production of high levels of triglycerides and moderate to higher amounts of cholesterol, which are not good for the cardiovascular system and increases fat levels in the body. Most of this fat is deposited in the abdominal belt and that’s why a beer drinking person has a beer belly.

To conclude, beer has both positive effects and negative effects on the digestive system. Our drinking habits, if moderate, will help us in leveraging its positive effects.

Last Updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2011