A Toast to the Health Benefits of Red Wine

About 10 years ago—back when I still published a print newsletter—I wrote about some emerging research around a little-known nutrient called resveratrol.

Today, of course, most everyone has heard of resveratrol. But at the time, it was just the latest discovery to come from a wave of research into the health benefits of red wine.

People have been touting the benefits of red wine —a drink that most people associate with relaxation, dinner, and celebration—for centuries. But until relatively recently, the notion that red wine is good for you was not a science-based one.

“French Paradox” Spurs Research on Red Wine Benefits

Thanks to the French, we’ve learned a lot about red wine over the past 20–30 years.

In the 1980s, epidemiologists in that nation began documenting what eventually became known as the “French Paradox”— the observation that the people of France have disproportionately low rates of cardiovascular disease despite eating a diet that’s high in saturated fat. In other nations where a high-fat diet is the norm, like the United States, heart disease is common.

Researchers began examining the French lifestyle for clues that might explain the anomaly. One hypothesis: the French’s regular consumption of red wine.

Years of analysis have shown that that wine isn’t the only factor in play. But in the process of exploring that idea, we’ve discovered that wine—red wine, in particular—does indeed have health benefits that promote longevity.

Heart Health Benefits of Red Wine

Many of wine’s health benefits are specific to the cardiovascular system. They include reductions in risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

These benefits seem to be the result of wine’s ability to influence a number of factors that contribute to heart disease. For example, studies have shown that wine can—

  • Increase levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol
  • Reduce levels of LDL cholesterol oxidation
  • Reduce platelet aggregation, which makes blood less sticky
  • Reduce fibrinogen levels, which also makes blood less sticky
  • Increase insulin sensitivity
  • Improve endothelial function

What Makes Red Wine Good for You?

Red wine’s protective properties come from its unique combination of alcohol and antioxidants.

Grape skins and pulp are rich in polyphenolic compounds—potent antioxidants that can help mediate inflammatory factors in the blood. Resveratrol  is probably the best known of these compounds, but they also include dozens of anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, and flavonols, among others. These nutrients mix with the juice when grapes are crushed and fermented during the winemaking process, giving red wine its antioxidant content.

Separately, ethanol (in moderate amounts) has been shown to also have cardiovascular benefits, including the ability to optimize cholesterol levels and reduce oxidation. In fact, moderate drinking, in general, has been shown to have cardio-protective effects.

Still, ethanol and antioxidants together have synergistic effects that make red wine unique. Two separate clinical trials comparing wine and gin (an alcoholic beverage with no antioxidant polyphenols) found that both had similar effects on participants’ cholesterol levels; however, wine showed the added benefit of reducing blood markers for oxidative stress.

The Best Red Wine for Your Heart

The first thing to remember about choosing a red wine is that the specific types of antioxidants it contains—as well as their amounts—will vary according to the conditions where the grapes were grown and how the wine is produced.

There are, however, some general guidelines you can follow when evaluating whether your preferred vino is among the healthiest wines:

Color. The deeper the color of a red wine, the higher the wine’s total polyphenol content. Darker grapes tend to contain more antioxidants overall; plus, the longer the grape skins, pulp, and seeds are allowed to macerate—i.e., break down—with the wine, the more of the color and nutrients the wine absorbs.

Maceration period. You’ll need to look into how your preferred wine is made to determine this—but as noted in reference to color, the amount of time that the skin, pulp, and seeds are allowed to soak with the wine have a specific influence on the amount of procyanidins it contains. The longer the maceration period, the more of these valuable nutrients the wine will absorb.

Growing regions. Because the phenolic compounds in wine develop in the grape skins, they can be affected by temperature, light, and other environmental factors. Resveratrol is a good example of this. It develops in response to the presence of bacteria and fungus, two things common in cool, rainy climates.

Added chemicals. Conventional wine grapes are often grown using synthetic pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. These synthetic chemicals are not allowed in the production of organic wine grapes. Although I don’t drink organic wine all the time, I’m a 90-percenter; organic wine is ideal for me because I don’t experience the side effects I do with some conventional wines, like a faster heart rate.

What About White Wine?

That’s a good question. Unfortunately, if you’re a white wine lover, I’ve got bad news.

Though white wine isn’t totally without benefit—two studies reported in the Washington Post suggest that white wine may improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels—it doesn’t pack the same antioxidant punch that reds do.

The difference lies in how each variety is produced. Red wine is fermented along with its grape skins, pulp, and seeds; white wine isn’t. Since the polyphenols in grapes are predominantly found in the skins, this means there’s less opportunity for them to mix with the juice. Hence, white wine’s lower overall antioxidant content.

Don’t take this to mean you should never drink white wine, though. If you like it, by all means enjoy it. But for maximum cardiovascular benefits, red wine is best.

All Things in Moderation

Finally, remember that while red wine should be celebrated for its health benefits, less is more.

All of the research I’ve cited showed that wine is beneficial when consumed in moderate amounts. For women, that means one glass a day; for men, one or two glasses a day.

Once you begin drinking more than that, the inflammatory effects of alcohol metabolites outweigh any antioxidant benefits. So while you can feel good about relaxing with a glass of wine at the end of the day, you shouldn’t use it as an excuse for polishing off an entire bottle.

To further qualify things, I’m also not comfortable with wine drinking every single day; I think it sets the stage for alcoholism. My recommendation is limit the drinking to every other day, 3 to 4 days a week.

I also would not advise a nondrinker to start drinking simply to take advantage red wine’s benefits.

References:

© 2016 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

12 Comments

  1. Will Dawson

    on October 12, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Is there any particular variety of red wine that offers the most benefits, for example, Pino, chianti, cabernet?

  2. Diane Gordon

    on October 12, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    I am a Red Wine Drinker. There is only a few White Wines that I like. Where do you buy Organic Wines? I have never seen them.

  3. Byron G.

    on October 27, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Same questions: which specific wines, e.g. merlot, cabernet, etc, do you recommend (including brands if any), and where do you find organic wines?
    Thank you

  4. Debra Minier

    on October 27, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Which specific Red Wines. I too wonder where to purchase organic wines. Thank you.

  5. John Rosenbaum

    on October 27, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    would like a response to all 3 questions

  6. HeartMD Editor

    on October 27, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    With regard to benefits, a lot just depends on the factors mentioned above: color, maceration period, and where grapes are grown. For example, “The deeper the color of a red wine, the higher the wine’s total polyphenol content” would mean that you’d want to go with darker red wines, as opposed to lighter ones like Pinot Noir. But, since wine made from grapes grown in a cool, rainy climate (like in Oregon, known for good Pinot Noirs) could possibly have increased resveratrol content, something like Pinot may be good. We say – as a bottom line – find something you really enjoy and enjoy it in moderation.

    With regard to organic, liquor stores and markets which carry wine often have many organic options. They can be hard to find if they are mixed in with all the other wines; we suggest asking someone who works in the store help you find an organic variety of the type of wine you want.

    As for brands (which we normally don’t comment on) – hands down – Dr. Sinatra’s favorite wine made with organic grapes is FreeSpirit Wine; not just because his son, Step, makes it, but because it tastes amazing and doesn’t impact his heart beat like other wines can.

  7. Kesha

    on October 27, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    Thank you for your post, where can I buy the FreeSpirit Wine that your son makes?

  8. Diane

    on November 5, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    This email about red wine benefits has been very helpful with wine selection. Thank you.

  9. Frank Delaware

    on April 20, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you for all this great information about drinking wine! One thing that really stood out to me is that the deeper the color of wine, the higher the total polyphenol content. It would be nice to know that you will be able to absorb all the nutrients you need.

  10. Sophia

    on August 17, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for all this great info! My dad talks vaguely about the healthy heart benefits of his wine habit, but it was very helpful reading the scientific backing. Gonna send this to him!

  11. HeartMD Editor

    on August 17, 2017 at 10:38 am

    Hi Sophia,

    We are very happy that you found the article helpful. And thank you for sharing it with your Dad!

    Best of health,
    HeartMD Editor

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