Sip On This: The Health Benefits Of Wine

by Tiffany Rider, Staff Writer

Since the days of the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, wine has been used for medicinal purposes as a treatment for anything from headaches to heartburn to constipation. But does the theory that wine has health benefits hold in today’s society?

Business Journal Photograph by Carlos Delgado

Various research studies have shown that moderate intake of alcohol may actually improve cardiovascular health, and the more unique chemicals found in red wine is showing further benefits. Doctors agree that unless an individual has specific health issues or is taking certain medications, drinking red wine in moderation may provide some health benefits.

Dr. Shivandand Pole from the internal medicine department at Lakewood Regional Medical Center said drinking wine in moderation should not be an issue, given a person has a clean bill of health; the same suggestion has come from various dietary guidelines since 1980. “There have been multiple studies showing benefits in drinking moderate amounts of wine,” he said.

The antioxidants found in wine have shown the power to improve the strength of arterial walls. These antioxidants, called polyphenols, include flavonoids and resveratrol, according to Dr. Fernando Mendoza, a cardiologist in Long Beach and Los Alamitos. Although Mendoza said most of the research done on the effects of these polyphenols has been done in test tubes and on animals, resveratrol in particular has piqued interest in the medical world.

The chemical has shown potential in aiding the formation of nerve cells and preventing tumor development in some cancers. Resveratrol may also be linked to reducing inflammation and blood clotting, which can lead to heart disease. Mendoza noted one study that took diabetic mice and put them on high fat diets. Researches noticed mice given resveratrol had a 30 percent less death rate than those mice not given the chemical, he said.

Also related to the flavonoid family, epicatechnin is a chemical found in cacao beans, which are sometimes used to create notes in wine. This particular chemical, Mendoza said, has shown to give those with low brachial reactivity – how arteries respond to vascular tests for heart attack or stroke risk – a normal result. However, it has not shown to help people live longer, he said.

Most people believe flavonoids have benefits with congestive heart failure, Mendoza said, and studies in “Hawthorne extract” given to those with the disease showed patients having less shortness of breath and an increase in endurance. Several European countries have approved the use of Hawthorne extract as an effective therapy for those with mild to moderate congestive heart failure.

Researchers at University of California, Davis, performed a test on which wines had the most flavonoids. Research showed the dryer the wine, the more flavonoids. The study showed a flavonoid hierarchy among wines as follows: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Red Zinfandel and white wines. Blends and red table wine were not specified.

“These antioxidants basically are substances that help prevent the breakdown of tissue in our body,” according to Dr. Michael M. Siegel, vice president of utilization management and quality improvement with Molina Healthcare in Long Beach.

“It can lower the risk of heart disease by preventing damage to our blood vessels. It may actually prevent bone loss in men who are older than 50 and it can reduce the risk of strokes.” Siegel also noted that some believe red wine may help reduce the risk of dementia, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

But does that mean we should all drink wine?

The Wine Institute, an advocacy group for California wine, released a statement earlier this year in reaction to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines related to alcohol that said, “Strong evidence from observational has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age.”

According to U.S. Food & Drug Administration guidelines, moderate alcohol intake equates to one five-ounce glass for women and two for men. Two reasons for the difference in suggested servings, noted by local doctors, are that men tend to metabolize alcohol better than women do and women typically weigh less than men.

Doctors suggest that anyone who chooses to drink alcohol do so in moderation, though. Siegel said, “It’s not felt that if you start drinking wine in moderation it’s going to lead you to become an alcoholic.”

Another benefit of drinking alcohol – wine included – is that it helps increase levels of good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Because Mendoza said he continually sees his patients having low HDL levels, he has suggested moderate drinking to many of them. He does not specify red wine, he said, because not everyone likes red wine. From this perspective, Mendoza, Siegel and Pole may suggest moderate red wine consumption.

However, from another perspective, Siegel notes the “empty calories” in red wine – about 80 in one 4-ounce glass – that don’t have much nutritional benefit. “Really, non-alcoholic and changes in your diet and exercise can all accomplish everything . . . just outlined without taking any wine at all,” he said. “Frankly, those other options have more proof behind them in terms of the health benefits than wine does at this point.”

Siegel said people might access the same antioxidants through broccoli, spinach, blueberries and strawberries. He also said grape juice may be another source. However, a UC Davis study confirmed that grape juice does have antioxidant but it doesn’t lower bad cholesterol the way red wine can.

“Most of these chemicals are present in very low concentrations in a lot of the foods,” Mendoza agreed, though he noted that whenever a person ingests any chemical, everything that goes in your body goes through the liver – where some may be broken down more than others – and then into the blood stream.

Doctors agree the best approach is to consult a healthcare provider for a risk-benefit analysis before making the lifestyle choice to drink red wine in moderation. Women should not drink alcohol during pregnancy and it is suggested they should avoid alcohol when attempting to become pregnant.

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