The Health Benefits of Wine

The Health Benefits of Wine

The Health Benefits of Wine

Why Wine Can Be Part Of A Healthy Lifestyle

Moderate wine consumption has been consistently linked to reduced mortality, largely due to its association with reduced heart disease. Several factors contribute to its positive effects. Wine is typically consumed moderately with meals, and its presence with the fat from the meal may enhance a beneficial effect. Wine also contains a significant quantity of phenolic compounds which are known antioxidants. In addition, wine's integral role in the healthy Mediterranean diet shows that it is an important part of an optimal diet. Finally, among Americans, wine consumers are known to have especially healthy traits. While we still need to take a closer look at the organic composition and lifestyle associations that make wine an especially beneficial beverage, dozens of scientific research reports demonstrate that moderate wine consumption can be part of a health diet and lifestyle.

Data consistently shows that regular moderate consumers of alcohol, whether in the form of wine, beer, or spirits, reduce their risk of heart disease by 25 to 45 percent and of overall mortality by about 10 percent. But a strong body of evidence based on studies of diverse populations suggests that wine consumers have even lower risks for coronary heart disease and death from all causes. While red wine enjoys a more healthful reputation than its fairer cousins, key studies find that both red and white wine consumers are at lower risk for disease than nondrinkers.

Noted alcohol expert Dr. Arthur Klatsky of Kaiser Permanente reached this conclusion several years ago. In a published study of 82,000 California adults, Dr. Klatsky reported that both red and white wine preferrers were at less risk of dying from coronary artery disease than beer or liquor drinkers.

More recently, a new set of data from the Copenhagen Heart Study, published by Dr. Morten Gronb`k, revealed that wine drinkers were the least likely to die during the 12-year study period. Among more than 13,000 men and women aged 30 to 70 who were tracked from 1976 to 1988, wine consumers had half the risk of dying of those who never drank wine. In this study, intake of spirits implied increased risk, while beer drinking did not affect mortality. Let us now take a closer scientific look as to possible reasons why wine is consistently linked to health and longevity.

Wine Consumers' Healthy Traits

At one time wine consumption was primarily a hallmark of Mediterranean civilization. Based on patterns established during the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, people in the southern European regions of the Mediterranean continue to consume wine on a regular basis. But due to the ongoing trend in worldwide fascination with international cuisine, people in far-flung cultures such as the US, Scandinavia, and Japan have blossomed into regular moderate wine consumers.

Today, all over the world, healthy adults enjoy wine to complement meals, improve cooking, share hospitality, and commemorate special occasions. Wine drinkers worldwide echo the moderate practices of the Mediterranean model. This moderation on the part of wine drinkers clearly seems to contribute to their longevity.

Research on US wine drinkers published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol attests to the overwhelmingly moderate and responsible behavior of America's wine drinkers. The data reveals that American wine consumers consume three to five glasses of wine per week and usually no more than 1.5 glasses on any given occasion.

While wine consumers span the spectrum of backgrounds, individuals with certain characteristics that favor good health were found to be more likely to drink wine. Wine tended to be preferred by both men and women who are in the upper brackets of income and education. Some 60.2% of wine consumers in the study attended graduate school, and approximately 53% of wine consumers had income levels above $45,000.

Other studies have shown that wine consumers tend to have healthier than average lifestyles. Positive health traits found to be statistically linked with moderate wine consumption include not smoking, regular exercise, and a diet rich in fresh produce. An earlier Kaiser Permanente study of 53,000 people found that wine consumers are at a reduced risk for many health problems, including being overweight and other coronary disease risk factors. Wine consumers may be predisposed to better health, and this tendency may be enhanced by the benefits conferred by moderate ethanol intake.

Pattern of Wine Consumption With Meals

Approximately 75% of wine drinking occurs in a home setting, according to a 10-year study by sociology Professors David Pittman and Hugh Klein. In those instances, more than 80% of the time wine is served with a meal, usually dinner. The important connection between wine and meals may have implications for wine drinkers' lower rates for heart disease and premature death from all causes.

For centuries, wine has occupied a prominent place on the dinner table in many cultures around the world, especially the Mediterranean. Over the last few decades, researchers have begun to realize that this pairing of wine with food may offer potential health benefits. While studies are limited at this preliminary stage, the French Paradox and the Mediterranean Diet model point out that there may be possible favorable interactions between different dietary components leading to a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases. It has been suggested that phenolic compounds present in wine, fruits, and vegetables favorably influence lipid profiles following a meal through antioxidative activities.

It was Serge Renaud of France who, in writing about the French Paradox in the Lancet in 1992, discussed how ". . . in France the untoward effects of saturated fat are counteracted by intake of wine." His theory states that alcohol decreases blood platelet coagulant activity, possibly preventing thrombosis. He bases this, in part, on an earlier study in which he demonstrated that a meal containing cream increased platelet coagulation in healthy males. Other researchers have reported that heart attacks are more likely to occur after a heavy meal. In the Lancet article, Dr. Renaud states, ". . . because wine is mostly consumed during meals, it is absorbed more slowly, and thus has a prolonged effect on blood platelets at a time when they are under the influence of alimentary lipids that are known to increase their reactivity." Thus, he was among the first to suggest that drinking wine with meals may provide alcohol just when its anti-clotting ability is needed most.

A recent study from the Organization for Applied Scientific Research in the Netherlands provides further evidence that consuming alcohol as part of a meal appears to be of importance in reducing risk. The researchers reported in the British Medical Journal that alcohol consumed with a meal may prevent blood clotting triggered by fats in the foods consumed. The authors suggest that alcohol stimulates the production of blood factors that prevent blood clot formation and that help to dissolve existing clots. Drinking with dinner assures that the protective effects of alcohol are strongest in the evening, when fats from the dinner meal circulate through the bloodstream and stimulate blood clot formation. This protective effect of alcohol with dinner carries over to the next morning when most heart attacks take place. Because wine, more than other beverages, is associated with food, it stands to reason that the favorable impact of wine on the bloodstream, whether from alcohol or wine-specific compounds or both, would enhance wine's healthful reputation.

Wine's Unique Phenolic Compounds

Within the last few years, antioxidant properties have been confirmed for compounds in wine that are part of a group called phenols. Phenolic compounds are found in grape skins and seeds and are well known for building subtle flavors and essences, as well as color, into wine. Now scientific data is making the case that this group of compounds may contribute as well to some of wine's noted beneficial effects.

The latest study by Dr. Andrew Waterhouse and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, pinpoints specific phenolic compounds in wine that inhibit the harmful oxidation of LDL cholesterol. The oxidation of LDL is believed to be a key step in the formation of artherosclerotic plaque that can clog arteries.

In a landmark experiment that accelerated the pace of research in this relatively new field, Waterhouse and colleague Edwin Frankel found that wine-based antioxidants are more effective than alpha-tocopherol, the commonly known form of the antioxidant vitamin E, in protecting LDL cholesterol from harmful oxidation. To do this they had to develop a very sensitive test to measure LDL oxidation. They reported in the Lancet that quercetin and epicatechin, two phenolic compounds found in wine, were both twice as powerful as resveratrol, a previously hailed compound, in interactions with blood samples drawn from volunteers. All three wine compounds were much more effective than vitamin E in preventing LDL oxidation. This experiment helped the researchers confirm their theory that the combination of phenolic compounds in wine perform antioxidant functions that may protect against arteriosclerosis over a prolonged period of consumption.

The Davis investigators have also reported that these key phenolic compounds with antioxidative properties are much more prevalent in wine than in fruits and fruit juices, including apple, grape, and orange juices. For example, they report that red wines have about five times higher phenolic levels than fresh grapes. It appears that many of the phenolic compounds are concentrated in plant seeds, skins and stems. These parts tend to be discarded and not incorporated into most juice beverages, but in the winemaking process these components of the fruit have the opportunity through fermentation to dissolve into the end-product, wine.

In recent months, research has shifted into the next phase, the more complicated work of checking for wine antioxidant activity in the blood of human volunteer subjects. While the studies have so far been few in number, some report evidence of absorption and antioxidant activity in humans from diverse population groups. Studies by independent scientists in California, England, Japan, and Israel have all published data verifying the absorption and activity of wine compounds in the bloodstream.

Researchers also report evidence that both white and red wines afford antioxidant protection from phenolic compounds. The role of phenolic compounds in wine's ability to protect human systems from chronic disease and oxidative degeneration remains controversial at this time. More studies are anticipated in the near future that will further clarify the biological activity of wine phenols in humans and their interactions with alcohol and other dietary elements. For now, we believe the emerging evidence suggests that the antioxidant activity of these compounds contributes to the role moderate wine consumption with meals can play in an optimal diet.

Wine in the Mediterranean Diet

It is no secret that the Mediterranean regions of Greece, Spain, France, and Italy boast some of the lowest heart disease and overall premature mortality rates in the world. Studies also highly correlate per capita wine consumption in those countries with life expectancy. So when scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, and the nonprofit Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust combined the best of traditional Mediterranean food and lifestyle patterns into a pyramid-shaped dietary model, it was natural for them to include wine. Wine, in moderation, occupies a prominent place to the right of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.

A study by a team of Greek researchers on the elderly inhabitants of three rural Greek villages provides new scientific confirmation of the virtues of consuming a traditional Mediterranean Diet. In this study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the more closely the elderly subjects' diet mirrored the region's traditional dietary patterns, the greater their chances were of survival during the study period. Characteristics of the diet include high levels of legumes, fruits, vegetables, grains, monounsaturated fats (primarily olive oil), moderate amounts of alcohol (primarily wine), and low amounts of meat, milk, and dairy products.

Until now, scientists had associated the traditional Mediterranean diet, including moderate wine consumption, with health benefits by correlating the World Health Organization's mortality statistics with its food consumption data for those regions. This new study marks the first time diet intakes have been recorded and compared with survival for a subject pool of specific individuals in a rural Mediterranean population. The researchers, led by Antonia Trichopoulou, collected a year's worth of dietary data on 182 village men and women over 70. "The results of this study provides evidence that . . . the Greek version of the Mediterranean diet favorably affects life expectancy among elderly people," the researchers state in their conclusion. This includes wine as part of this optimal diet.

"Wine is consumed in moderation and almost always during meals," the researchers report in their paper. The continued scientific evidence for wine's role in the Mediterranean Diet lends support to the association between moderate wine consumption and good health


The pioneering work of scientists helped revive the idea that wine and alcohol could be good for you, at a time when the political climate was anything but receptive to this news. Thanks to the determined research of these people, who kept on despite the unpopularity of their ideas among major government agencies, we have begun to turn the tide. We are seeing, for the first time, a thaw in the official policy position towards alcohol, as an across-the-board negative perception gives way to a more balanced view. With the latest edition of the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many of us see the fruition of years of work towards establishing the benefit of wine in a healthy diet. Questions remain, especially on where, if at all, to draw the line between those benefits that can be attributed specifically to wine and those generic to alcohol.

Thanks to the groundwork laid during the past decade, the political climate appears more favorable to funding studies on this subject, and there is cause for optimism that we will be able learn the answers to these remaining questions in the very near future. In the meantime, whether it is because of the healthy traits of wine consumers, the traditional pattern of consuming wine with meals, the contribution of wine's antioxidants to the nutrient mix in the bloodstream, or all of the above, there is ample evidence to support the pleasurable, responsible consumption of wine as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

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