After decades of research, it seems clear that moderate alcohol intake is heart-healthy.

Epidemiological studies link moderate drinking – one to two alcoholic beverages daily – to a reduced risk for heart disease and premature death.

And, thanks to its abundance of polyphenol-class antioxidants, red wine appears to provide heart-health benefits superior to those associated with white wine or spirits (Arranz S et al. 2012).

The authors of a recent evidence review characterized the current medical consensus: “… moderate alcohol consumption, especially alcoholic beverages rich in polyphenols such as wine and beer, seems to confer cardiovascular protective effects in patients with documented CVD [cardiovascular disease] and even in healthy subjects.” (Chiva-Blanch G et al. 2013)

Why would the polyphenol antioxidants in red wine help artery health?

The authors of another recent review article cite two major reasons why red wine – and other drinks and foods high in polyphenols – would help artery health and discourage cardiovascular disease (Andriantsitohaina R et al. 2012): 
  1. Polyphenols help control free radicals, which can damage arteries and circulating cholesterol. These effects are mostly indirect, and occur via polyphenols' influence on gene switches in our cells. 
  2. Polyphenols increase production of nitric oxide in the endothelium (lining) of arteries. In turn, nitric oxide dilates and relaxes arteries, thereby helping to prevent or alleviate cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and metabolic syndrome.
Beer also contain substantial amounts of polyphenols.

But how does it stack up against red wine as an aid to artery health?

Beer boasts a wide range of beneficial polyphenols
Ales and beer are made with hops and whole grain, both of which are rich in polyphenols.

As the authors of a study published last year wrote, “Moderate beer consumption has also been associated with these [beneficial cardiovascular] effects [of red wine], but to a lesser degree, probably because of beer's lower phenolic [polyphenol] content.”

Although beer has lower levels of polyphenols than red wine, its hops and grains contain a wider range of polyphenols … including ones with vascular benefits, anti-cancer effects, and the ability to deter gingivitis and bacteria-caused ulcers. 

For example, hops contains about as much resveratrol – the polyphenol famed for boosting energy and extending lifespans in rodents – as occurs in the grapes used to make red wine.

Some of beer's polyphenols are uncommon ones, such as xanthohumol (zan-tho-hu-mol), with research revealing apparent anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits.

Beer boosts artery health in novel clinical trial
A joint U.S.-Greek team just published an unprecedented clinical study that probed beer's effects on blood pressure and artery health (Karatzi K et al. 2013).

Importantly, they attempted to tease out the distinct roles played by its alcohol and polyphenols.

The scientists recruited 17 healthy, non-smoking men – average age of 28.5 years and average weight of 170 pounds (77.5kg) – for a randomized, single-blind, crossover study..

The participants consumed three different beverages on separate occasions, at least one week apart:
  • 13.5 oz (400 mL) of beer mixed with 13.5 oz of water
  • 27 oz (800 mL) of de-alcoholized beer (same amount of polyphenols as in the 13.5 oz of beer)
  • 2.3 oz (67 mL) of vodka mixed with 24.7 oz (733 mL) of water (same amount of alcohol as in the 13.5 oz of beer).
Each time, the researchers measured four aspects of artery health and function before the drinks were consumed, and again at one and two hours later:
  • Aortic artery stiffness
  • Pulse wave velocity (PWV)
  • Aortic and brachial artery blood flow
  • Endothelial function (brachial flow mediated dilatation)
Pulse wave velocity (PWV) is a measure of arterial stiffness that correlates strongly with the risk for adverse cardiovascular events and death.

All of the men consumed each of the three beverages on three separate occasions, with at least one week between each test.

Only the beer-plus-water drink improved endothelial function significantly, making it the only test drink that improved all four measures of artery health and function.

However, alcohol containing no polyphenols improved the other three measures of artery health and function:
  • Aortic stiffness was reduced significantly and similarly by all three drinks.
  • Pulse wave velocity was improved significantly by all three drinks, but beer (9.1 percent) and vodka (8.5 percent) produced better results compared with the de-alcoholized beer (2.8 percent).
  • The flow of blood through brachial and aortic arteries increased beneficially after all three test drinks.
Therefore, alcohol containing no polyphenols improved three out of four measures of artery health and function.

The authors cautioned against applying the results to women or to people with cardiovascular disease, as the study only included healthy men.

While this was a small trial, it supports prior research showing that moderate alcohol consumption is good for artery health.

And it seems to show that alcoholic beverages providing substantial amounts of polyphenols – namely, red wine and beer – offer a significant advantage over their harder counterparts.

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