Ancient Beer Recipes Lead To Modern Heal Remedies
Of course, not all early pharmaceuticals possessed the curative effects they were believed to have. “Superstitions, misguided religious injunctions, or unfounded psychological notions might creep into a tradition over time,” McGovern wrote—such as “submerging a rhinoceros horn or bull's penis in a modern Chinese wine to convey its strength or other sympathetic attribute.” But there’s been enough gold flakes in the stream of historical remedies that McGovern, working with Caryn Lerman, deputy director of the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center, decided to launch a project they dubbed Archeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery. The goal is to investigate whether the remnants of antediluvian leftovers of beer and other bevvies gathered from the clay and metal jars buried in tombs next to kings, pharaohs and emperors possessed any anti-cancerous properties.
As part of that project, McGovern investigated the medicinal properties of drops of liquid found in a bronze Chinese pot from the Shang dynasty, circa 1050 B.C., and a yellowish residue scraped off a clay jar from the tomb of Egyptian king Scorpion I, circa 3150 B.C. After zeroing in on a few promising compounds, cell line researchers tested their anti-cancer efficacy by adding them to various malignant cells in test tubes. The results were encouraging. Several ingredients showed anti-cancerous activity against certain types of lung and colon cancer. For example, isoscopolein (from the sage and thyme added to Egyptian beers) stimulated a protein that protects against DNA mutations and acts as a tumor suppressor. Artemisinin (from wormwood and mugwort in Chinese rice wine) and its synthetic derivative, artesunate, were very promising in inhibiting the growth of lung cancer cells.
Ancient beers may hold keys to promising therapeutics, but modern brews are also filled to the brim with potential. Chemists at the University of Washington, for example, are investigating humulones, which are substances derived from hops, in hopes that they may lead to new meds for treating diabetes and some forms of cancer. Other studies found that in addition to its pharmaceutical promises, beer offers a slew of preventive medicinal benefits. It lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney stones and even improves cognitive performance in the elderly, says Charles Bamforth, a professor of malting and brewing sciences at the University of California, Davis. Beer also contains vitamin B, an antioxidant compound named ferulic acid and a lot of grain-derived fiber, which Bamforth posits in his study may work as a prebiotic—a food source for the beneficial bacterial colonies that live in the human gut.
Some studies suggest that beer may help fend off osteoporosis because it’s high in silica, a mineral important for maintaining bone density and promoting connective tissue formation. Naturally present in the grain, silica is released during the brewing process, says Jonathan Powell at MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, England, and unlike pill supplements it is fully absorbed by the body because of its liquid form. When you look at its overall nutritional value, beer is superior to wine, says Bamforth, who is also quick to dispel the “beer gut” myth. It’s not the “empty calories” that give beer drinkers their round bellies but rather their overall lifestyle and the type of food typically served with the ales and stouts—like burgers, for example. “To pin that blame on beer alone is simply unfair,” Bamforth says.
So as you raise your frothy mugs this Oktoberfest, take notice—your pints will be brimming with minerals, nutrients, vitamins, antioxidants and loads of fiber. You just need to consume this healthy fusion in moderation, beer scientists caution. “Drinking beer shouldn’t be an end in itself,” Bamforth says. “It should be a pleasurable, sensual experience.”