By Jane Hart, MD
Healthnotes Newswire (April 2, 2009)—We often hear about the health benefits of moderate drinking—such as decreased heart disease risk—and the potentially negative effects of drinking too much—such as increased risk of certain cancers, liver problems, falls, fractures, and alcoholism. New research adding to the plus side of moderate drinking has found that certain people’s bones may benefit from a drink or two per day.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that men and postmenopausal women who drink one to two drinks per day may have higher bone density levels compared with those who don’t drink. But researchers caution that drinking more than that can have the opposite effect.
Boning up on bone health
Bone density refers to a person’s bone mass or bone strength and is measured by a test called bone densitometry, which measures bone mass in various parts of the body such as the hips, spine, and legs. As people age they naturally lose bone mass, which decreases bone strength and increases the risk for fractures. Maintaining healthy bones is important to help preserve functioning and prevent injury.
Prior research has suggested that moderate alcohol drinking may have a beneficial effect on bones. A recent study looked at the health and drinking habits of 1,182 men, 1,289 postmenopausal women, and 238 premenopausal women who were part of the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Participants were given bone densitometry tests and they filled out diet questionnaires that asked about the amount of alcohol they drank. In this study, a serving was defined for each type of alcohol this way:
• Beer: one 12-ounce (356-ml) glass, bottle, or can
• Wine: one 4-ounce glass
• Liquor: one 42 ml shot
A drink or two, but don’t overdo
Men and postmenopausal women who reported drinking one to two drinks per day had higher bone density levels compared with men and women who don’t drink, and this was more true of beer and wine drinks than liquor. Men who drink more than two drinks of liquor per day had lower bone density levels compared with men who drink less. There was no association between bone density and alcohol drinking in premenopausal women.
Researchers Katherine Tucker and her colleagues from the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, at Tufts University in Boston, note that “alcohol intake, particularly from beer and wine, may protect bone health. However, intake of more than two drinks per day of liquor in men was clearly harmful. We did not have sufficient numbers of women who drank heavily to confirm or refute this likely negative effect with heavy drinking.”
The reason moderate alcohol drinking may contribute to bone health is unclear, but may relate to a beverage’s nonalcohol components or to the alcohol’s direct effects on hormones or organs that affect bone health.
Tips for keeping bones healthy
The possible risks and benefits of drinking alcohol should be discussed with a doctor. Some people should not drink alcohol at all due to physical or mental health conditions or due to potential interactions with medications. Fortunately, a person may increase bone strength in other ways as well. For example:
• Get regular check-ups with your doctor. Regular examinations and preventive tests such as bone densitometry can help keep you up-to-date on the health of your bones.
• Exercise. Regular weight-bearing exercise such as brisk walking and strength training with weights can help keep bones strong and healthy.
• Eat a balanced diet. Vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and calcium are critical for bone health. Talk with a doctor or nutritionist about how to ensure that you are getting enough vitamins and minerals through your diet and add dietary supplements if needed.
• Don’t drink too much alcohol. As mentioned, some people should not drink alcohol at all, but the current guidelines recommend that healthy women drink no more than 1 drink per day and healthy men no more than 2 drinks per day. Consuming more than the recommended amount can increase the risk of accidents, injuries, and illness. Talk with a doctor about how much alcohol is appropriate for you.
• Ask about hormone replacement therapy. For some women, estrogen therapy may be another way to improve bone health, but hormone replacement therapy may also lead to health risks so discuss your options with a doctor.
(Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:1188–96)
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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