By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
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.
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