Are there health benefits to drinking red wine?

What’s all the hype about red wine? Should you drink more of it?

ThinkStock Photo via Tri County Health Dept

ThinkStock Photo via Tri County Health Dept

Currently, in the US, chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are some of the top killers of Americans. There is a push across the nation to find a way to decrease risk of these diseases. Areas of research have focused on the benefits of compounds found in foods we eat, primarily ones called “phytochemicals,” which are found mostly in fruits and vegetables. Therefore, in recent years, people have associated red wine with health benefits.

There is indeed a compound in red wine, specifically from the skin of the red grapes, that some studies show may be good for your health. The compound, called resveratrol (RSV), is said to reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. One study showed that blood pressure in rats decreased after they were given RSV for three weeks, which may have an implication in heart disease. In another study that looked at skin cancer, applying RSV topically decreased activity of the proteins that are involved in spreading cancer cells. Even though these studies are promising, there is still not enough evidence of benefits to humans. It is important to note that most research has only been done on lab animals. Also, the dosages used in studies have had a wide range, from 0.3 to 2 liters per day, so a realistic dosage to reap benefits is hard to pinpoint.

I will also note that utilizing pure resveratrol in animal studies does not necessarily translate into the human body. Current literature suggests that it is absorbed efficiently, but has poor bioavailability, due to rapid metabolism and elimination. After it is absorbed, RSV is metabolized by the liver to form metabolites. RSV has a plasma half-life of 8-14 minutes, while its metabolites have a half-life of about 9.2 hours, which are shown to be excreted at high levels in the urine, thereby inhibiting bioavailability to the body. Research in humans indicates that tissues are exposed primarily to resveratrol metabolites (rather than RSV itself) which results in its weak bioavailability.

RSV’s proposed properties could have many impacts on the health of many people. But research is still lacking and the mechanism of action is still unknown and further studies are required. There have not been any human studies that prove anything in particular about RSV. A human study would need to involve a large sample of participants and they would need to be followed for a substantial amount of time to draw any certain conclusions about health benefits for humans. However, this kind of study would be difficult, because it would be impossible to strictly control diets of so many people for an extended period of time.

So, what are my thoughts?

  • The beneficial compound resveratrol is not found in all alcohol. It is found specifically in red wine, because the skin of the grapes contains the compound. If you are looking to increase intake of resveratrol, you don’t have to consume red wine; however, pinot noir has highest in resveratrol content. Other sources include: grapes, peanuts, berries, soy, tea, and pine needles.
  • Correlation does not equate to causation. There is no solid proof that resveratrol can prevent cancer nor cure cardiovascular diseases. Always consult a physician regarding concerns about your health.
  • Heavy consumption of alcohol can negate the proposed benefits of resveratrol. Increased consumption of alcohol can lead to: liver disease, cancer, anemia, dementia, depression, gout, high blood pressure, and nerve damage, to name a few.
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