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A Compound in Beer Might Save Your Brain from Degeneration

Chinese researchers have found that a flavonoid found in hops and beer could be preventative towards conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia.

by Hilary Pollack
Feb 2 2015, 5:43pm

Awakening in a deep state of regret and pain the morning after a night of heavy drinking, it often feels like you've soaked your entire mind and body in poison (and technically, you have). But apparently, there's more to the story than just the devolutionary price of a boisterous night of sloshy karaoke; Chinese researchers have recently found that in some ways, beer may actually be protecting your brain from some of the nasty degenerative diseases that can pop up later in life.

Well, before you go and chug an entire 32-pack of Natty Light in hopes of doing a cerebellum good, there are some caveats. Led by Jianguo Fang, the researchers—who are from China's Lanzhou University and Natural Science Foundation of Gansu Province and published their work last week in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry—found that the beneficial compound is a flavonoid called xanthohumol, which is found in hops (and thus, in beer).

Fang and his team conducted a series of lab tests on rats to determine whether xanthohumol could be helpful in protecting neuronal cells. The compound not only helped to repair damaged neurons, but was also shown to be preventative to degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia. There has been a growing scientific belief that these conditions could be caused or exacerbated by oxidative damage to brain cells, and the recent study suggested that xanthohumol has protective antioxidative properties as well as cancer-fighting and cardiovascular benefits.

The researchers concluded that the flavonoid could potentially slow the development of these types of diseases by protecting the brain against "oxidative stress." In the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Fang argued that "In traditional Chinese medicine, hops have been used to treat a variety of ailments for centuries … The presence of a high concentration of [xanthohumol] in beers might be linked to the epidemiological observation of the beneficial effect of regular beer drinking."

But again—this doesn't mean that boozing always does more good to your brain than harm. More research is needed to determine exactly how much xanthohumol is the sweet spot, as drinking the most beer possible probably isn't the best way to go. (The cheese in pizza, after all, contains bone-healthy calcium, but that doesn't mean that you should eat an entire pizza for every meal.)

Subsequent studies could instead try to harness the compound and use it to manufacture medications or treatments that could slow the onset of Alzheimer's or benefit those who are at high risk of developing it. But this also isn't the first time that research has shown the benefit of this hops-based miracle chemical. Last fall, a study from Oregon State University noted that in very large doses, it improved cognitive function in mice, and in 2010, German researchers found that it may help to prevent the spread of prostate cancer.

Other beneficial types of flavonoids, some said to promote heart health and prevent cancer, are found in red wine, chocolate, and fruit.

So you can feel a little bit better about kicking back with a beer during happy hour—especially if you're in the older crowd. But before you go on the truffles 'n' IPA 'n' Pinot Noir diet, hold off for more cues from our friends in the lab.