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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Red Wine

It is often touted as the most healthful beverage at the bar. Is red wine good for you?

The answer is not straightforward. Red wine has been shown to be beneficial in moderate amounts, mostly due to the antioxidant resveratrol. And, let’s begin with the obvious: Some of us should not consume any alcohol in any quantity. Alcoholism is a terrible disease, and potential benefits from red wine can be gained from nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle.

A glass of red wine is indeed delightful. It is prepared by crushing and fermenting dark-colored grapes. Some common varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Malbec. While there is some resveratrol in white wine, there are far higher levels in red wine, because red wine is fermented with the grape skins. (Note that resveratrol supplements have not yet been shown to offer the same benefits.) The average glass of red wine contains 200 milligrams of polyphenols, including resveratrol, compared to merely 30 milligrams in a glass of white wine!

Red wine’s reputation for being good for heart health came from the “French paradox.” A 1980’s study explored France’s relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite their high consumption of saturated fats (think cheeses and sauces). Wine makers (and drinkers) were delighted when this benefit was unscientifically and incorrectly linked to France’s high consumption of red wine.

What are some of the potential health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation? Research suggests that:

  • The resveratrol in grapes acts as an antioxidant, preventing cell damage and protecting cells against free radicals.

  • Antioxidants can help to protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure, keeping blood vessels more flexible, slowing the oxidation of the “bad” cholesterol LDL, and lessening the risk of metabolic diseases.

  • Resveratrol can help to control chronic inflammation, which, in addition to causing heart disease, can lead to some cancers (basal cell, colon, prostrate, and ovarian) and autoimmune disorders.

  • Studies have shown that those who drink red wine are less likely to be depressed. Note that, on the other hand, drinking in excess can have the opposite effect!

  • Wine can aid digestion by reducing the risk of infection from Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that can lead to ulcers. It may also promote the growth of “good” gut bacteria.

  • Resveratrol inhibits the formation of beta-amyloid protein, which is found in the plaque of the brains of those with Alzheimer’s dementia.

  • Resveratrol reduces sugar levels in the blood.

  • Resveratrol leads to the creation of piceatannol, which among other functions has lipid-regulating effects and can control the production of fat cells.

What is moderate drinking? It differs between men and women. For women, that level is likely one five-ounce glass per day. For men it may be as high as two five-ounce glasses per day. This would represent the total amount of any type of alcohol consumed. (Cooking with wine offers the same benefits as drinking it.) I would also suggest skipping alcoholic drinks at least three days per week.

It is quite clear that consuming more than moderate amounts of any form of alcohol has numerous negative health effects, and that many are best off drinking none at all. Let’s again make it clear that alcoholism is a tremendously destructive disease. At least one in ten deaths among those aged 20-64 are related to excessive drinking. Drinking too much alcohol is clearly linked to heart problems, stroke, liver disease, pancreatitis, and mental health conditions.

While there are potential benefits to drinking red wine in moderation, it may well be that other aspects of the lifestyles of wine drinkers actually confer the benefits. Keep in mind that these health benefits can be achieved through nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. The antioxidant resveratrol is found in peanuts, grapes, blueberries, plums, cranberries, many vegetables, and cocoa. (Allow me to repeat that last one: COCOA!)

If you drink, enjoy a nice glass, but please drink responsibly and safely.

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