The truth about tequila and bone health

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Dr. Robert H. Shmerling,

“Tequila could reverse osteoporosis!” “Drinking tequila is good for your bones!” “Have a third margarita — because tequila’s great for your bones!”

Talk about misleading headlines! These are prime examples.

It’s true that a newly published study found that a substance in tequila  — called agave tequilana, or tequila agave — might help maintain bone health. And that it could lead to new treatments for osteoporosis.

But consider the details:

• The study was performed on mice who had had their ovaries removed. This is by no means a perfect model for human osteoporosis.

• The mice were treated with a type of agave tequilana — not tequila — and for only eight weeks.

• When compared with untreated mice, the treated mice were found to have larger thigh bones, and samples of their thigh bones contained more of a protein linked with bone growth (called osteocalcin). However, there was no long-term treatment with agave tequilana beyond the initial eight weeks, nor was there any assessment of whether this treatment would prevent osteoporosis.

The researchers suggested that sugars in the agave tequilana interacted with bacteria in the intestinal tracts of the mice to encourage absorption of minerals needed to build bones. So, a “healthy intestinal microbiome” may also be required for this approach to work.

What’s the catch?

I think this new research is intriguing. It’s entirely possible that certain types of agave (a plant that produces a honey-like nectar) could turn out to help people maintain or improve bone health.

And considering the health impacts of osteoporosis — hip fractures, loss of mobility, and complications that can lead to death in some cases — such an advance can’t come too soon.

But any study in animals has to be considered highly preliminary. It’s simply unknown whether the results of this study apply to humans.

In addition, the animals did not drink tequila. They were treated with a chemical found in tequila. So, the suggestion that we (humans) might improve our bone health by drinking margaritas is, in my view, just a way to grab attention.

Even if we could fast forward a few years and confirm that agave tequilana improves human bone health, it’s unlikely that the treatment would be in the form of tequila.

Unfortunately, many people don’t read past the headlines. This is one time when that would be hazardous. The health impact of the alcohol in tequila — and the sugar content of agave — are just two of several “downsides” that could come about if you were worried about your bone health and took the headlines too literally.

Haven’t we been here before?

This new study on “tequila for osteoporosis” reminds me of past studies touting the health benefits of chocolate, wine or coffee. The same week as the tequila story broke, other researchers reported that certain substances in red wine and coffee could improve cardiovascular health by changing the intestinal bacteria. Again, the study was in mice.

Claims that some of our favorite foods and drinks are actually good for us are not new. Some claims are better supported than others. For example, the evidence that coffee consumption may reduce the incidence of certain types of liver disease in humans is compelling.

Still, it’s relatively rare that doctors actually “prescribe” these foods to prevent or treat disease. Perhaps they should. But enthusiasm for doing so is tempered by concerns that excessive consumption may cause other, unhealthy effects.

We’ll need much more research before tequila, or anything in it, can be recommended for bone health or any other health concern. Until then, I hope medical writers — and readers — will be careful in how they interpret preliminary research.

It’s one thing to hope that what you like is also good for you. It’s quite another for that to be anything more than wishful thinking.

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is a faculty editor at Harvard Health Publications.

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