Why wine works to keep hearts well

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2008

"Wine can be considered with good reason as the most healthful and most hygienic of all beverages." Louis Pasteur

Dr. Pasteur had it right more than a century ago. Wine lovers know that this beverage adds to the enjoyment of life — but could it also make that life last longer?

Scientists say "It depends." Drinking one or two glasses of red wine each day does seem to lower the risk of dying from heart disease. Drinking four or more glasses of wine per day is associated with higher mortality and for women, an increasing risk of breast cancer.

The evidence that alcohol can protect the heart comes from two sources, population studies and laboratory research. Physicians have puzzled for years over the French Paradox. It seems that Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) have much less heart disease than Americans do in spite of the fact that their diet is supposedly rich, fatty and sweet. Most French citizens don't really eat that way but they do have a high intake of fruits and vegetables. Their higher level of physical activity is a factor that not all observers have taken into account. Until recently the French didn't eat like Americans. Now that their dietary habits are becoming more like ours, so are their medical problems and coronary heart disease is on the rise in France. Their wine-drinking habits may help but the fruit of the vine is hardly a cure-all.

Biochemistry offers a better argument. Wine is rich in flavonoids and other chemicals that act as antioxidants. These are more abundant in red wine, which includes the juice from the skin of red and purple grapes. Resveratrol in particular has intrigued scientists for years. Res, as they refer to it, prevents some harmful forms of cholesterol from accumulating in the lining of coronary arteries and keeps them supple. Some of its heart protective effects are due to its ability to limit the formation of clots that could block the flow of blood.

Resveratrol is only one of the many ingredients in wine that have nutrient value. Quercetin is a heart-protective antioxidant. Saponins bind cholesterol in the intestine so that it cannot enter the bloodstream. Polyphenols in wine help blood vessels to relax and to increase blood flow.

The health benefits of wine go beyond the heart. It contains boron, a mineral that became a focus of attention when it was found that men who ate a diet rich in boron had 64 percent less risk of prostate cancer than men whose diets contained very little. This mineral is a key factor in the prevention of osteoporosis and in the proper function of the immune system. Persons with the lowest intake of boron suffer from poor short-term memory and have poor manual dexterity.

In summary, enjoy red wine every day if you already do drink but limit it to 2 glasses. Women should keep their intake down to about one glass a day. And yes, fruit juice does have similar benefits but it takes about 6 times as much as wine to have the same effect.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.