FRIDAY, May 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The bartender was right: A couple of beers could be just what your heart needs, especially if you're a middle-aged man or a postmenopausal woman.
New evidence of the benefits of moderate alcohol use comes from research that identifies a physiological mechanism that apparently links regular consumption of beer to better cardiovascular health in older men and women.
The small study, by Dutch and Finnish nutritional physiologists at TNO Nutrition and Food Research in The Netherlands, appears in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The study examined the effect of drinking beer on three hormones -- dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS), testosterone and estradiol -- in nine women who had reached menopause and 10 middle-aged men. The researchers found moderate alcohol consumption increased the plasma DHEAS levels in individuals of both genders, decreased plasma testosterone in the men, and had no effect on plasma estradiol levels at all.
Study co-author Henk F.J. Hendriks said these results help explain how alcohol fits into a healthy diet. DHEAS is believed to play a protective role against atherosclerosis for men and women, just as low testosterone does for men and adequate levels of estradiol does for premenopausal women, he said.
Atherosclerosis results from the buildup of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and other materials along the inner lining of arteries. The condition is considered a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
"This is the first diet-controlled intervention study showing that moderate alcohol consumption can increase circulating levels of DHEAS," Hendriks said. "The relevance of this finding is that it further substantiates that moderate drinking is consistent with a healthy lifestyle."
"Moderate" in this context is defined as up to 30 grams of alcohol a day for men and up to 20 grams a day for women. For reference, a Dutch glass of beer contains about 10 grams of alcohol, while a U.S. glass contains about 12 grams.
Dr. Michael Weber, a professor of medicine at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, N.Y., isn't surprised by the findings.
His own research several years ago showed alcohol has a positive effect on HDL cholesterol, the so-called "good cholesterol" that promotes heart health. The Dutch study found a similar relationship.
"It's a reasonable conclusion that alcohol products influence levels of certain circulating hormones," Weber said. "The evidence from this study adds to the growing evidence that consumption of modest amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can be beneficial."
Weber is quick to point out, however, that no responsible health-care professional is likely to advocate that patients who don't presently drink start bellying up to the bar for their heart's sake.
"While drinking small amounts of almost any kind of alcohol may be beneficial in terms of cardiovascular protection, we all know that there are many other ways to achieve a similar benefit, including aerobic exercise and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables," he said. "And, of course, there are some individuals who cannot and should not drink alcohol at all."
Dr. Steven Siegel, a clinical assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at New York University Medical School, concurs with the Dutch study's conclusions. But he cautions that it's still too early to tell how important the findings may be in understanding how best to prevent cardiovascular disease.
"The observation of a relationship in a study of this type does not necessarily mean that the factors that are shown to be linked to one another are causally related," he said. "There are likely to be many other factors involved in a complex chain of events that ultimately results in cardiovascular protection. Even so, these findings may prove to be one more potentially valuable piece of the puzzle."