Why nonalcoholic beer beats regular beer after exercise

Heineken beers are seen at a supermarket in Krakow, Poland on January 18, 2022. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For many people who run, cycle or work out often, beer drinking and exercising are almost inextricably entwined. But for performance, recovery and health, nonalcoholic beer is likely to be a much better choice and can even be as good as or better than regular sports drinks.

Research shows that fit, active people can imbibe plentiful amounts of alcohol. A 2022 study, aptly titled "Fit and Tipsy?", determined that men and women with relatively high aerobic fitness were more than twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers as those who were in worse shape.

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There are many reasons for this swigging. Exercise enjoys a health halo, justifying, for some of us, insalubrious habits. The social nature of working out also often leads to bar visits after a bike ride or yoga class.

"Beer is used to socialize postexercise, celebrate sport victory, and commiserate postdefeat," according to the authors of a 2021 systematic review about exercise and alcohol titled "Got Beer?"

But beer has downsides for those of us who exercise.

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Beer is not a sports drink

Full-alcohol beer is a mild diuretic, for one thing, which is counterproductive if you need to replace fluids after exercise. In a 2016 study, healthy men who drank beer after a workout produced more urine than if they drank water or a sports drink.

Research also hints that alcohol, including beer, could affect how well our muscles strengthen and grow after exercise and, unsurprisingly, impairs reaction time and balance. Inebriation is rarely performance enhancing.

So, some researchers began to wonder whether nonalcoholic beer might be a better, more acceptable, and even advisable beverage for active people.

The first clues came in a much-discussed 2012 study of 277 men who'd signed up for the Munich Marathon. Scientists asked half of them to begin downing about two to three pints of nonalcoholic beer every day for three weeks before the race and two weeks afterward. The others drank a similar-tasting placebo as a control group. (The study was funded by a German brewery, but the researchers declared in the study that the brewer had no input into the study's design or analysis.)

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Fewer colds and less inflammation

Researchers drew blood before and several times after the race and also asked the men to report any symptoms of a respiratory infection. Colds and other upper-respiratory-tract infections (URTI) are common after a marathon.

But the nonalcoholic beer drinkers seemed relatively protected. "Incidence of URTI was 3.25 fold lower" among that group than the controls, the study's authors wrote. The beer drinkers also showed lower markers of inflammation and other indicators of generally improved immune response in their blood.

"We ascribed these benefits to the beer polyphenols," said David Nieman, a professor of biology and human performance at Appalachian State University, who co-wrote the study.

Polyphenols are natural chemicals found in plants that frequently have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, he said. Beer, including the alcoholic variety, tends to be rich in polyphenols, with the numbers and types depending on the particular brew.

But the alcohol in regular beer probably undermines any beneficial effects from the polyphenols, said María P. Portillo, a researcher affiliated with the Center for Biomedical Research Network at Carlos III Research Institute and the University of the Basque Country in Spain. She and her colleagues published a study in December reviewing the available, albeit skimpy, data about beer, polyphenols and cardiovascular health.

"What is true is that polyphenols, present in both conventional and nonalcoholic beer, show interesting antioxidant effects and the resultant anti-inflammatory process," she said of their findings. But alcohol simultaneously can jump-start inflammation, she continued. So, "in the case of conventional beer the beneficial effects of polyphenols can be masked by the negative effects of alcohol."

In beer without alcohol, on the other hand, the polyphenols should calm inflammation, without interference from the alcohol.

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When you should drink nonalcoholic beer

Nonalcoholic beer also seems useful for hydration. In a 2016 study, if male athletes drank nonalcoholic beer 45 minutes before a draining workout, they wound up less dehydrated afterward than after drinking beer, and similar to drinking water, but with a better ratio of sodium to potassium. Drinking the nonalcoholic beer "could help maintain electrolyte homeostasis during exercise," the researchers concluded.

In other words, "nonalcoholic beer can be a reasonable recovery drink," said Johannes Scherr, the chief physician and head of the University Center for Prevention and Sports Medicine at Balgrist University Hospital at the University of Zurich, who also was lead author of the 2012 marathon study.

Nieman agrees. "After long and vigorous exercise bouts, nonalcoholic beer provides water, polyphenols and carbohydrates," he said, which together "will aid metabolic recovery."

It also has the signal advantage of being almost completely natural, which is uncommon among sports drinks. "One goal of my research group is to show that sports drinks can be replaced with healthier alternatives," Nieman said. "Nonalcoholic beer would fall into that category."

None of this research suggests, though, that exercisers should start glugging nonalcoholic beer if they do not enjoy the taste or worry that nonalcoholic beer now might encourage full-alcoholic beer intake later.

These beverages also contain calories, typically around 50 to 90 per can or bottle, fewer than most sports drinks but not zero, a consideration for weight control.

And, of course, beer during exercise, even if it is nonalcoholic, will not play well with your gastrointestinal tract. Beer is fizzy and likely to cause discomfort, burping, nausea or worse.

So, when is the best time for a nonalcoholic brew, if you exercise?

"If you consider the polyphenols and their anti-inflammatory activity, it probably doesn't make much difference," Scherr said. "But for rehydration, it should be drunk primarily after sports."

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