The link between heavy drinking and poor bone health has been known for years, but doctors have only been able to speculate as to why – could it have something to do with how alcohol affects hormones, or the fact that alcoholics tend to also be malnourished, or that people who are frequently drunk tend to fall down and hurt themselves more often? A new study conducted by Loyola University Medical Center has found the real answer, which has more to do with how alcohol affects the bones at a molecular level.
According to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Roman Natoli, one of the lead researchers behind the study, one of the reasons behind the link between heavy alcohol use and bone problems is indeed the fact that heavy drinkers are more prone to accidents and injuries, including shootings, falls and car accidents. However, he said that alcohol use slows down the bone healing process as well.
Why Alcohol Worsens Bone Healing
In order to come to their conclusions, Dr. Natoli and a team of researchers separated laboratory mice into two groups, with one group receiving no alcohol at all and the other group receiving enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol content to approximately three times the legal driving limit. The researchers found pronounced differences between the two groups in the callus, defined as the rigid, bony material that develops on a fractured bone. In the alcohol group, the callus contained less mineral content and was smaller and weaker than for mice in the group that received no alcohol.
The mice in the alcohol group also exhibited symptoms of oxidative stress, which harms cellular functioning by releasing free radicals into the body.
Finally, the mice in the alcohol group also had far less osteopontin in their bodies. Osteopontin is a protein that attracts stem cells to the local site of the bone fracture, and these stem cells eventually turn into bone cells.
Could Alcohol Benefit Bone Health?
Although the researchers behind the new study are confident that drinking alcohol in excess damages bone health, other previous studies have found that drinking alcohol in moderation may actually be good for your bones. A 2012 study indicated that drinking one alcoholic beverage per day slows down bone deterioration in aging women, while a study conducted in 2008 found that people are less likely to suffer a hip fracture if they drink approximately half of one drink or one drink per day as compared to those who drink heavily and those who don’t drink at all.
Adolescents especially should avoid heavy drinking in order to preserve their bone health, as bones are still busy storing calcium during these formative years. The advice for most people, however, is to avoid drinking in excess while a broken bone is healing.
The Bottom Line
Heavy drinking increases a person’s risk of bone fracture, slows the bone healing process and makes bones heal to a weaker state, according to a recent study conducted at Loyola University. The study was presented on October 6th at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research.