Many of are indulgences are bad for us! It can be a struggle to resist that melting chocolate moment, or to have the self control to not eat the entire packet of biscuits in one sitting! Or is that just me? So I have an almost wicked delight in watching scientists struggle over why wine, red in particular, can have powerfully beneficial effects on our health – so long as the intake is moderate. Men should have no more than two drinks a day. Women no more than one. One drink is defined as a 5-ounce glass of red or white wine, 12 ounces of regular beer (1 bottle) or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
Also, when I was researching a lecture I enjoy giving, Mood Food, alcohol kept emerging as having a seemingly contradictory effect on brain health. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 people who had light (up to a drink a day) to moderate intakes of alcohol had better brain health than those who abstained or drank heavily (4 drinks a day or more). Alcohol temporarily stimulates a brain neurotransmitter, GABA which helps us chill. It switches off excess adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone. Moderate alcohol also stimulates other brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin, resulting in a happier you . The theory goes that we all live such stressful lives that this increase in the ‘happy messengers’ protects us more than the small amount of alcohol damages us.
But before more good, here’s the bad news! If you drink excessively you run the risk of alcohol inhibiting the breakdown of nutrients by decreasing the secretion of digestive enzymes. Alcohol impairs nutrient absorption by damaging the cells lining the stomach and intestines. Alcohol inhibits fat absorption and thereby impairs absorption of the vitamins A, E, and D that are normally absorbed along with dietary fats. Heavy drinking can also damage the liver, brain, pancreas and increase cancers of the mouth, oesophagus, larynx… need I go on?!
But what if you moderate your drinking? Apart from the above helpful relaxant effects, red wine in particular has many extraordinarily powerful health benefits. And the word resveratrol keeps emerging as one of the reasons. Resveratrol is a natural antibiotic that wards off bacteria and fungus in some plants. It is in grapes and the skins of grapes that produce wine, raspberries, mulberries, blueberries, cranberries and peanuts. Red wine contains much more of this potent compound because the production processes of red wine are different from those of white. When the grapes are crushed, the skin and seeds remain with red wines but the skins and seeds are removed for white wines.
One of the most well known health benefits of red wine is reducing the likelihood of heart disease. A team of scientists from the Queen Mary University in London and the London School of Medicine may have found how red wine interferes with the production of a chemical, endothelin-1, which is needed to clog up the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack.
Components, including antioxidant polyphenols, were tested from 23 red wines, four white wines and a rose. They discovered that the amount of endothelin-1 stopped in its tracks was directly proportionate to the amount of polyphenols the red wines contained. There was no such effect from the white or rose wines. The best red wine? Cabernet sauvignon had the most powerful impact.
A less well known benefit is emerging. Researchers in Seattle looked at factors that might influence the development of prostate cancer in men aged 40 to 64. They found that men who drink an average of four to seven glasses of red wine a week are 52 per cent as likely to develop this cancer as those who do not drink red wine. In particular they found that red wine appears protective against advanced or aggressive cancers. Other types of alcohol don’t have the same impact.
And there is good news for smokers! In 2008, the American Association for Cancer Research published a paper which reported on the analysis clinical data from over 80,000 mean, aged 45 to 69 years. Researchers measured the effect of red and white wine, beer and spirit consumption on the risk of lung cancer. The results are pretty staggering. The most substantial risk reduction was among smokers who drank one to two glasses of red wine daily. They had a 60 per cent reduced lung cancer risk. No such effect came from the white wine, beer or spirits. Again it is thought that resveratrol holds the secret.
Very recently (April 2010), researchers at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, USA say they have discovered the way in which red wine may protect us from stroke. The emerging theory is that resveratrol (you guessed it!) increases levels of an enzyme (heme oxygenase) already known to shield nerve cells in the brain from damage. When the stroke hits, the brain is ready to protect itself because of elevated enzyme levels. The scientists caution against taking resveratrol supplements, because it is unclear whether such supplements could do harm or good. And while resveratrol is found in red grapes, it’s the alcohol in the wine that may be needed to concentrate the amounts of the beneficial compound.
Many doctors are reluctant to recommend drinking red wine for health, fearing that their patients may assume that if a little alcohol is good, a lot might be better! However drinking red wine in moderation may lower our risk of certain cancers, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and reduce the formation of blood clots and bad cholesterol. It is also a source of enormous pleasure! At last a treat of the palate that can be a treat for the body. Salud!