Throughout our lives, our bones are constantly changing — shedding old cells and growing new ones, in an effort to stay strong and healthy. Bones are continuously being built up by cells called osteoblasts and broken down by cells called osteoclasts.
Osteoblasts are most active in our younger years, when we are growing and our bone mass increases constantly. When we stop growing, osteoblasts and osteoclasts should be in balance, and our bone mass should stay consistent. But as we enter our senior years — and especially as women enter menopause — osteoclast activity predominates. This means that bone resorption happens a lot faster than bone formation, which causes weakened bone and the higher risk of fractures.
Eighty percent of patients with osteoporosis are menopausal women. Osteoporosis medication — known as bisphosphonates — are meant to reduce bone turnover in menopausal women, but due to their high cost and significant potential side effects, many women opt not to take them. Fortunately, preventing or slowing the progression of osteoporosis can often be achieved successfully without drugs by making several diet and lifestyle changes.
One such lifestyle factor that could potentially protect the bones from osteoporosis is moderate alcohol consumption. Recently published research examined what effect alcohol had on bone turnover over a 15-day period, and the results should make beer lovers and wine connoisseurs jump for joy.
This particular study looked at the effects of alcohol withdrawal and readministration on the markers associated with bone turnover. It included a total of 40 women who all met the following criteria:
- Postmenopausal for 10 years or less
- Younger than age 65
- No use of hormone replacement therapy within six months of the start of the study
- Drank 0.5 to two standard-size drinks per day during the year prior to the start of the study
- No current use of medication known to affect bone turnover, and no history of osteoporosis-related fracture
During the week before the study, participants were asked to maintain their normal alcohol intake and keep a record of their consumption — specifically the type of alcohol, the amount consumed, and the time of day it was consumed. The women also completed questionnaires that inquired about their use of two important bone-building nutrients — calcium and vitamin D.
Researchers drew blood samples from all the participants at the commencement of the study, then asked them to abstain from alcohol for the next 14 days. They collected blood samples again on day 14, and then the women were given a container with a predetermined amount of alcohol, equivalent to their prior average daily intake, to consume that evening. Once again, researchers drew blood the following morning (day 15).
The blood samples were taken to measure the levels of the bone resorption marker C-terminal telopeptide (CTx) and the bone formation marker osteocalcin. In addition, researchers used dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans to measure the woman’s bone density.
Alcohol Improves Bone Formation
According to the data collected prior to the study through the questionnaires, researchers noted that mean dietary calcium intake was 814 +/- 46 mg per day, and mean supplemental calcium intake was 748 +/- 76 mg per day. Mean intakes of dietary vitamin D were 128 +/- 12 IU per day, while supplemental vitamin D was 383 +/- 41 IU per day. In addition, on average, the women consumed 1.4 standard-sized alcoholic drinks per day prior to the start of the study.
Upon analyzing the DEXA scans and blood tests, researchers found that there was a positive association at baseline between alcohol consumption and total hip bone and trochanter mass density. They did not detect significant associations between alcohol intake and bone mass density at the femoral neck or lumbar spine, however.
They found even more exciting results in the blood levels of osteocalcin and CTx — two markers that you do not want to see high levels of, especially if you are concerned about osteoporosis.
The researchers stated, “There was a significant increase in the bone turnover markers osteocalcin and CTx when alcohol was excluded for 14 days from the diets of participants who regularly consumed [alcohol] at 8 to 28 g/day. Within 12 to 14 hours of resuming alcohol consumption, osteocalcin and CTx returned to values that did not differ from baseline (pre-abstinence levels).”
They also noted that a standard-sized drink differs from country to country, but in theUnited States, a standard drink usually contains about 13.7 g of alcohol. Using that measurement, they stress that two standard-size drinks per day should be your daily max in order to see benefit.
The study did not differentiate between bone health benefits and type of alcohol, but if you are looking for health benefits that far surpass bone protection, then turn to red wine. Studies have proven that the antioxidants in red wine can help prevent heart disease and atherosclerosis, keep your cholesterol levels in check, and prevent certain types of cancer. Lucky for us, we can now add “prevent osteoporosis” to that ever-growing list.
 Marrone JA et al. Moderate alcohol intake lowers biochemical markers of bone turnover in postmenopausal women. Menopause. 2012;19(9). [Epub ahead of print.]