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Wine, Beer Wipe Out Ulcer-Causing Bacteria, Study Shows

The beverages' beneficial effect may be due to polyphenols rather than alcohol, scientists theorize.

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: January 16, 2003

Moderate consumption of wine or beer may help rid the body of a type of bacteria long suspected of causing peptic ulcers, according to a team of researchers in the United Kingdom.

The study, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, aimed to find out if smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol and coffee is associated with Helicobacter pylori infection.

Physicians believe that H. pylori, which can burrow holes in the stomach wall, is responsible for the majority of peptic ulcers. However, H. pylori does not cause ulcers in everyone it infects, so scientists believe certain substances may assist in "activating" it or combating it. Little else is known about the bacteria's existence inside the human body.

"It is widely believed that the infection is acquired in childhood and that it is usually lifelong, unless specific therapy is used to eradicate it," said the lead author of the study, Liam Murray, an epidemiologist at Queen's University in Belfast. (For example, the bacteria can be eliminated by a course of antibiotics.) "However, it may be spontaneously eradicated in some instances," he said.

The research involved more than 10,000 people, ranging in age from 20 to 59 years old, who were patients at seven health centers in and around Bristol, a city in southwest England. Between 1996 and 1998, the volunteers filled out questionnaires on their current lifestyle and on their childhood living conditions. They were tested for H. pylori infection through X-rays or spectroscopy.

The participants were grouped according to whether they drank, their preferred beverage (beer, wine or spirits) and the amount they typically consumed per week. (One unit was defined as a standard glass of wine, a shot of spirits, or a half-pint of beer.)

Wine drinkers were put into three categories: one to two units per week, three to six, and seven or more. Beer drinkers had four categories: one to two units per week, three to six, seven to 14, and more than 14 units. Spirits drinkers were divided in two groups: one to two shots per week and three or more.

The researchers found that those who drank more than seven glasses of wine per week had a 17 percent lower chance of having an H. pylori infection than nondrinkers. Those who drank three to six units of beer per week also had the same reduced risk.

Wine drinkers who consumed three to six units per week showed an 11 percent lower risk of infection than nondrinkers, as did those who drank one to two beers a week. However, beer drinkers who consumed more than 14 units per week showed a higher risk, 5 percent more than nondrinkers.

The consumption of spirits, regardless of the amount, was linked to an increased risk. For example, those who drank just one or two shots of liquor per week had a 7 percent higher risk of infection than nondrinkers.

Smoking and drinking coffee did not seem related to the risk of infection, according to the research.

Wine has also been found to help kill off E. coli and salmonella in the stomach, according to the results of a recent study from food scientists at Oregon State University.

As in the Oregon study, the U.K. scientists theorized that components such as polyphenols, in which beer and wine are both rich, were responsible for eradicating the bacteria. "It is possible that the antibacterial effects of wine and beer may be unrelated to their alcohol content," they wrote.

The authors added, "As this infection is predominately acquired in childhood, it is likely that alcoholic beverages exert this effect by facilitating eradication of the organism rather than by preventing its acquisition."

Murray cautioned against changing drinking habits based on this study. "To suggest that people start drinking for this reason will run the risk of some new drinkers becoming alcohol abusers," he said, adding that the results "may be additional reason for established moderate drinkers to continue their modest alcohol consumption."

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For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind a Healthy Life With Wine

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