Previous research had shown moderate consumption of alcohol could have beneficial effects on health, in particular on preventing cardiovascular disease, but most studies suggested that it was the ethanol in alcohol which was the principal reason for these benefits. Non-alcoholic beer has the ethanol removed, suggesting that it would not have the same beneficial effect.
Publishing their findings in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, scientists from the Deutsche Klinik fuer Diagnostik said that non-alcoholic beer may also be able to impart cardiovascular benefits without the negative effects of alcohol, by inhibiting blood coagulation and platelet activation.
"Some research suggests that the positive effects of alcoholic beverages on cardiovascular disorders is not due to alcohol alone but also, at least in part, to other so-called confounding factors such as resveratrol, a compound present in red wine," said Steffen Bassus, first author of the study.
"The mechanisms which underlie the protective effects of wine and beer consumption on CHD risk are not fully understood, but there is substantial evidence that the effects on hemostasis [the arrest of bleeding or circulation] play a key role."
Bassus and his colleagues examined the hemostatic effects of consuming three litres of regular beer, non-alcoholic beer, or alcohol mixed with water during a three-hour period on 12 young, healthy male volunteers aged 19-36. Blood samples were drawn for analysis before and after consumption.
All three fluids were found to contribute to reduced platelet activation and blood coagulation - the alcohol-free beer just as well as the alcoholic beverages - suggesting that it is not simply the ethanol in alcohol which can have beneficial effects.
"The secretion and aggregation of platelets are key events in the development of intima thickening and atherosclerosis," said Bassus. Atherosclerosis is characterised by irregularly distributed lipid deposits in the arteries, which can provoke fibrosis and calcification, impede blood flow, and/or eventually shut off blood flow.
"Anti-platelet drugs are often used to reduce intima thickening: for example, restenosis is used after angioplasty. Perhaps a different method of inhibiting platelet activation would be to drink de-alcoholised beer."
Another finding of the study concerned only the non-alcoholic beer, which caused a significant decrease in thrombin generation.
Thombosis is the clotting of blood vessels, which may cause the death or decay of tissues supplied by the vessel. "Less thrombin means less thrombosis and less intima thickening," said Bassus. "Conversely, the acute consumption of alcohol beverages causes an increase of thrombin generation, suggesting a thrombotic risk in case of acute alcoholic intoxication. But this is only an assumption that has to be investigated in further studies."
Bassus said the study's findings underscore the importance of exploring all of the confounding factors associated with alcoholic beverages. "Until we know more, perhaps non-alcoholic beverages can serve as an alternative, providing health benefits without the negative implications of alcohol use and abuse."
The study was partially funded by German brewer Bitburger.