It’s a good question. You’ve heard of the French Paradox, right? This is the case of the French enjoying a few glasses of wine daily and experiencing better cardiovascular health than Americans do─despite consuming meals high in saturated fat. Triple cream brie and pâté de foie gras, anyone? When these findings were televised on 60 Minutes in 1991─speculating that red wine decreases the incidence of cardiovascular disease─the consumption of red wine in the U.S. increased by 44%!
There’s no question that the French enjoy wine in fairly generous quantities, but it’s no magic bullet. There are many other cultural factors that play into lower rates of heart disease in France─including keeping work in healthy proportion, emphasizing relaxed, daily family meals, eating rich foods in moderation, walking practically everywhere, generally disdaining fast food, and typically refusing to get fat, to name a few.
So, what role does alcohol play in American health and longevity? While drinking too much is obviously hazardous to our health, there’s no denying the body of research indicating that moderate alcohol consumption reduces our risk of many health issues, including heart disease, stroke, gallstones, diabetes and dementia.
You might ask what defines “moderate” consumption, and whether all forms of alcohol are equally beneficial. From a conservative standpoint, sticking with the standard “one drink per day for women, two per men” seems about right. Most studies agree that drinking much in excess of that─certainly beyond four daily drinks─robs you of those coveted health benefits. And for women with a family history of breast cancer, even one daily drink may be questionable.
However, for the majority of people, a daily libation offers protection on multiple levels. While all types of alcohol appear to be helpful, research suggests that when it comes to concrete benefits, red wine reigns supreme. One study noted that “moderate alcohol, specifically wine intake, provides cardioprotection and neuroprotection and may increase longevity.”(1)
Other research reveals that moderate wine drinking─particularly red wine─minimizes risk of atherosclerosis, ischemic heart disease, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease─the latter term referring to problems associated with blood vessels supplying the brain. Rather Impressive, considering that heart disease is still the #1 American killer.
Why is wine so effective when it comes to cardio protection? Well, it’s partly attributed to the alcohol portion, but more importantly, to the antioxidants wine contains─such as resveratrol, catechins, epicatechins, and proanthocyanidins. Resveratrol is mainly found in the grape skin, whereas proanthocyanidins are found only in the seeds.(2)
Yet another study noted that resveratrol possesses estrogenic, anti-platelet, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as health benefits ranging from cancer prevention to cardio protection. Recently, several studies described resveratrol as an anti-aging compound.(3)
So what’s the take away? Generally speaking, while beer and spirits have some health value, red wine is hard to top─especially given the power of resveratrol. But moderate wine drinking won’t avail you of optimal levels─for that you should supplement this tremendously protective antioxidant. Cheers!
1 Eur J Cancer Prev. 2011 Oct 13. [Epub ahead of print]2 J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2009 Dec;54(6):468-76.
3 Heart Fail Rev. 2011 Jul;16(4):425-35.