July 11, 2012 -- Women who drink alcohol moderately may be doing their bones a favor, new research suggests.
"Moderate alcohol as a component of a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and physical activity may lower the risk of osteoporosis," researcher Urszula Iwaniec, PhD, associate professor at Oregon State University, tells WebMD.
The study is small, with only 40 women, she cautions, and the research needs to be repeated in larger groups to see if the findings hold up.
The women in the study averaged 1.4 drinks a day. More than 90% were wine drinkers, Iwaniec tells WebMD.
The study is published in the journal Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society.
Drinking and Bone Health: Study Details
In the past, other research has found a link between moderate drinking and bone health, as measured by bone density, Iwaniec says. However, it has not been shown definitely that alcohol itself helps the bones or that the benefit is due to other factors.
Bones are constantly remodeling, with old bone being removed and replaced. Estrogen helps keep this bone remodeling process in good balance.
The researchers took blood samples at the study start and computed the levels of indicators of bone turnover.
Next, the researchers asked the women to abstain from all alcohol for two weeks and took blood samples again.
After two weeks, the rate of bone removal and replacement increased. "That means that bone turnover is increased, and increased bone turnover is an independent risk factor for fractures [in older women]," Iwaniec says.
After the two-week abstinence, the women were given a set amount of alcohol to take home, based on their average intake. They drank the alcohol that evening and returned to give the researchers another blood sample the next morning.
After they drank again, the women had a rapid decrease in bone turnover, Iwaniec found. It returned to previous levels.
"What alcohol seems to do is lower the overall rate of turnover, which may reduce your bone loss," Iwaniec tells WebMD.
She cautions, however, that she is talking about moderate drinking only. "Excessive drinking is bad for your bones," she says.
Alcohol & Bone Health: Perspective
The design used in the new study to examine bone turnover before and after drinking or not drinking is a stronger one than those used in previous research, says Heidi Kalkwarf, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. She has studied the topic and reviewed the findings for WebMD.
More study is needed, she says, to understand alcohol's widespread effects on the body's cells.
The study's bottom line? "Moderate consumption of alcohol (1-2 drinks per day) is slightly beneficial for bone health," Kalkwarf says.
Not all women wish to drink, nor should this research make them start. "For women who do not wish to consume alcohol, there are other strategies to optimize health," she says.