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Moderate Drinking and Bone Health

August 5, 2012

New research points to another advantage of moderate alcohol consumption—better bone health. Menopause puts women at greater risk of developing weaker bones, which may lead to fractures (especially hip fractures) from falling. The weakness of the bones results from an imbalance between the normal resorption (a type of dissolving of old bone) and the laying down of new bone, an ongoing process for both men and women referred to as "bone turnover." Scientists don’t yet fully understand why, but after menopause the resorption of old bone in women continues yet new bone is laid down less well, leading to a decrease in bone density. In addition to studies done on calcium, vitamin D and various medications to help prevent the development of osteoporosis, research shows that moderate drinking of alcohol also lowers this risk. The latest study, from researchers at Boston University Medical Center and other institutions and published in the journal Menopause, looked at 40 healthy postmenopausal women with an average age of 56. The authors measured factors related to osteoporosis in women while they were consuming alcohol, after they had stopped drinking and after they had resumed their alcohol consumption. The authors state that excessive bone turnover, combined with an imbalance whereby bone resorption exceeds bone formation, is the principal cause of post-menopausal bone loss and conclude that alcohol decreases their bone turnover, which in turn leads to less resorption of bone and less osteoporosis. The study also showed that abstinence from alcohol resulted in increased markers of bone turnover and then a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, and that resuming alcohol consumption reduced bone turnover markers.

International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research reviewers considered this to be an innovative and well-done study. The key questions raised were how alcohol may affect bone metabolism in a longer period of time than was tested in this study. Reviewers realized that such long-term intervention trials are very difficult and expensive to carry out. On the other hand, many prospective epidemiologic studies in the elderly have shown greater bone mineral density and a lower risk of fractures among regular moderate drinkers than among abstainers. The most important aspect of this study may be that it has helped identify cellular mechanisms for the increased bone density observed in post-menopausal women who are moderate alcohol consumers. Moderate drinking for women is considered one alcoholic drink per day, such as 5-ounces of red wine.