The Health Benefits Of Wine
The medical profession has recognized the healthful and nutritive properties of wine for thousands of years. Hippocrates recommended specific wines to purge fever, disinfect and dress wounds, as a diuretic or nutritional supplement. As part of a normal diet, wine provides the body with energy, aids digestion, and contains small amounts of minerals and vitamins. It can also stimulate the appetite. In addition, wine can restore nutritional balance, relieve tension, sedate and act as a mild euphoric agent.
The French Paradox
The ‘French Paradox’ is the popular thinking of wine as a medicine rather than toxin. Typically, the diet of people in southern France includes a very high proportion of cheese, butter, eggs, organ meats and other fatty and cholesterol-laden foods. This diet would seem to promote heart disease, but the rate there is much lower than in America. Thus, the French Paradox.
In essence, the ‘French Paradox’ is the observation that although the French don’t eat a particularly healthy diet, they have a much lower rate of heart disease than people of other nations. This startling fact is said to be due to the relatively high consumption by the French of wine, which in some way acts to protect them from heart disease. Of course, this is just a correlation for which there is no direct proof. But it does fit well with the results from large-scale population studies on drinking and mortality.
There is still quite a bit of controversy surrounding the French Paradox. However, the idea is now so firmly entrenched in the public’s mind, and so intuitively attractive a hypothesis, that it looks likely to stay.
The Beneficial Effects Of Wine
Alcohol has a number of health benefits. Moderate consumption of red wine on a regular basis may be a preventative factor against coronary disease and some cancers.
The chemical components thought to be responsible for this are catechins (or flavanoids). Catechins are believed to function as antioxidants, preventing free-radicals from doing cellular damage.
Grapes and wine also have two compounds called resveratrol and quercetin. Studies have shown these to boost the immune system, block cancer formation, and possibly protect against heart disease and even prolong life.
A study published in the 2004 year-end edition of the American Journal of Physiology said that resveratrol also inhibits formation of a protein that produces a condition called cardio fibrosis, which reduces the heart’s pumping efficiency when it is needed most in times of stress.
More evidence suggests that wine dilates small blood vessels and helps prevent angina and clotting. The alcohol in wine additionally helps balance cholesterol levels.
In recent years, new evidence of the beneficial effects of alcohol on other medical conditions has emerged.
The antioxidant hypothesis is immensely attractive and intuitive, and has received much publicity. It explains the biochemistry of bad molecules called free radicals. These cause oxidative damage to low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), making them more likely to damage artery walls. It is this atherosclerotic damage that increases the risk of heart attacks. Red wine contains compounds called polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties.
Blood Lipid Fractions
This is believed to be the most likely mechanism explaining alcohol’s positive effect on cardiovascular disease. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is the lipid that, when oxidized, plays a role in atherosclerosis, which leads to heart disease. Alcohol itself, rather than any particular component of it, has been shown to raise the levels of good cholesterol (HDL). Exactly how alcohol has this effect is not known.
A study published in January 2003 in the American Journal of Gastrointestinal showed that moderate, regular consumption of wine or beer decreases the risk of peptic ulcers and may help rid the body of the bacteria suspected of causing them.
The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a 14 year trial called the Nurses Health Study, which required participants to complete a questionnaire every two years detailing lifestyle choices and diagnoses of any medical condition.
The subjects were divided into three levels of alcohol consumption. The study found that women who drank regularly and moderately (one or two drinks per day, or a total of 15-30 gm of alcohol) had a 58 percent lower likelihood of developing diabetes.
Other studies point to multiple benefits of regular and moderate wine drinking, including lower risk of stroke, colorectal tumors, skin and other cancers, senile dementia, and even the common cold, as well as reduced scarring from radiation therapy.
The nutritional content of wine is minimal. There is no fat, cholesterol or dietary fiber in wine. The official recommendation in the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (4th edition), published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is “Advice for today: if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation, with meals, and when consumption does not put you or others at risk.”
There is evidence that a regular, moderate intake of alcohol can have health benefits. On the other hand, wine is not a cure-all. The vast majority of healthy people may enjoy wine regularly and moderately as a pleasure that supports and prolongs a gracious life.
These findings are not a reason to take up drinking if you currently abstain, but they do represent a reason to cut back if you imbibe heavily.