MONDAY, July 16, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Why do Germans sing when they drink beer? Could be they're celebrating their good health.
German scientists say Teutons who drink only beer get the same heart and vessel protection as those who prefer wine. The researchers note it's the quantity -- not the kind -- of alcohol drunk that protects the heart. A moderate amount apparently improves the blood's balance of blood fats and reduces its tendency to clot.
The study was done by Dr. Wolfgang Koenig, a cardiologist at the University of Ulm, and appears in this month's issue of the journal Epidemiology.
Koenig and his colleagues compared alcohol consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in nearly 800 men and women, about a third of whom had established heart and vessel problems.
Fifty-four percent of drinkers said they mixed their liquids, consuming in the process an average of 166 grams of alcohol per week, or about the equivalent of two beers, or two five-ounce glasses of wine or 2½ ounces of hard liquor.
Beer drinkers were mostly men, and they consumed an average of 125 grams of alcohol a week, about 2.5 times more alcohol than wine drinkers, who tended to be women.
Koenig's group also took blood samples from the subjects and found that alcohol drinkers had higher levels of HDL cholesterol, a protective form of blood fat, as well as lower levels of fibrinogen, a protein that promotes blood clots. Regular drinkers also had elevated levels of other molecules that prevent clotting and stickiness of blood cells called platelets, all of which could help explain why their risk of heart disease was lower than non-drinkers.
"We speculate that fibrinogen and other markers of clotting and inflammation are the mediators of the effect," says Koenig. "It seems that it is not related to any specific type of alcohol, but rather the amount that is consumed."
Dr. Harvey Finkel, a clinical professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine who studies the salubrious effects of alcohol on the heart, says other research suggests that half of drinking's cardiac benefits come from the alcohol itself.
The rest may depend on constituents in drinks, such as the antioxidants that are found in red wine, for example. Beer, too, appears to have powerful oxygen-mopping molecules, though at much lower levels than wine.
In an editorial accompanying the journal article, Harvard nutrition researcher Dr. Eric Rimm writes that "at least half" of alcohol's protective effects on cardiovascular health are attributable to its ability to boost HDL, while another 20 percent to 30 percent can be ascribed to its anti-clotting properties. The rest is a mystery.
"We have found that diet and related lifestyle factors [such as smoking] may confound the association between beverage choice and coronary heart disease and, in some cases, strongly modify the benefits attributed to moderate alcohol consumption," Rimm writes.
What To Do
Finkel, who also chairs the health committee for the Society of Wine Educators, says whatever the case, moderation rules.
To squeeze the best effects from wine, spirits or beer, men should drink between one and three one-ounce servings of alcohol a day -- or three drinks -- while women should consume half that amount. The reason for the disparity isn't body weight, but rather differences in the stomach's capacity to break down alcohol.
Tipplers who put away four drinks a day will do themselves more harm than good, adds Finkel, who says research shows that death rates for people in this group outstrip those of abstainers.
For more on beer, try the National Beer Wholesalers.