Drinking one or two alcoholic beverages several times a week may improve women's bone health, and reduce their risk for osteoporosis, say scientists. However, this only applies to women "of a certain age", they says.
Bones are living tissue, the reserachers say, with old bone continually being removed and replaced, in a process that is called remodeling.
In people with the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis, more bone is lost than replaced. Postmenopausal women are at particular risk because of reduced oestrogen, a hormone essential for bone strength, says the US researchers.
"This study clearly demonstrates that even small amounts of alcohol have potent actions, and these can rapidly (affect) bone metabolism," says lead researcher Dr Urszula Iwaniec, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, "moderate alcohol may slow bone loss by lowering bone turnover", she says. That means it may lower the risk for osteoporosis.
"Reducing bone turnover, however, while beneficial to the ageing skeleton, may be detrimental to young adults who are still building bone," Iwaniec says.
Although alcohol abuse is a serious medical and public health problem, the effects of moderate drinking on health have not received a lot of attention before now, Iwaniec says.
Roughly one half of all American women and a quarter of men will break a bone because of osteoporosis, according to the US National Institutes of Health, which provided partial funding for the study.
Because prescription drugs aimed at preventing or treating osteoporosis are expensive and can create unpleasant side effects, it is important to identify lifestyle factors that protect the bones, the study authors say.
For the study, published in a recent online edition of Menopause, Iwaniec's team followed 40 postmenopausal women, average age 56, who drank moderately and were not using hormone replacement therapy.
"Moderate" drinking was defined as one-half to two standard drinks a day in the year before the study's start.
In the US, a standard drink is considered a beer, a glass of wine or a tot of 80-proof liquor.
When the women stopped drinking for two weeks, the researchers found increased evidence in their blood of bone turnover, which is a risk factor for fractures that can result from osteoporosis.
In less than a day after the women resumed drinking, these markers of bone turnover returned to previous levels, the researchers found.
Previous studies have found moderate drinkers have higher bone density than nondrinkers or heavy drinkers, but the reasons have been unclear.
It appears that alcohol acts much like oestrogen in reducing bone turnover. And the alcohol source doesn't seem to matter, Iwaniec says.
"Most of the women in our study were wine drinkers," she says. "However, based on our data in rats, it is the alcohol that's important."
Whether the same effect would occur in men is not known. Also, the study does not prove that moderate alcohol consumption wards off osteoporosis; it merely shows an association between the two.
Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says the study is welcome in light of US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations against calcium and vitamin D supplements to prevent osteoporosis.
"From that perspective, this finding is very interesting," Steinbaum says. "I am telling all of my postmenopausal women not to take calcium any more, and there is this panic about how do we help ourselves in preventing fractures and osteoporosis."
This study shows that a couple of drinks might help not only in preventing heart disease, but in preventing osteoporosis, Steinbaum says.
"I do not recommend taking a calcium supplement, but I do recommend a healthy diet that is high in nutrients and calcium, and also weight-bearing exercises and one to two glasses of wine a day, which I also recommend to prevent heart disease," she says.
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