There has been much speculation in the past few years regarding the possible health benefits of wine – or, in particular, the components in wine other than alcohol.
An idea that is supported by a great mass of published evidence is that moderate consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages leads, in general, to a longer and healthier life when contrasted with abstainers. Around half of the benefit in wine is attributable to alcohol (and, in fact, alcohol is the only dangerous component in wine – and only when it is abused), however this leaves half as many more ingredients which are less precisely defined in terms of their impact on health.
The direct benefit of alcohol is chiefly in favour of the cardiovascular system. This is represented by a dramatically reduced number of ischemic strokes, atherosclerotic heart attacks and limb amputations due to compromised blood supply. Scientific views on the healthful benefits of wine’s other compounds are not as unanimous, however, but are under ever increasing scrutiny.
Most promising are the pholy-phenolic flavonoids, which can be referred to simply as antioxidants, according to their most attractive function. Found in grapes, chiefly the skins, their concentrations tend to be higher in red wines, where the skins are included in fermentation. Their functions in the vine are not yet completely clear, though they appear to be antifungal.
It is difficult to find these antioxidants in other alcoholic beverages. Among the best known, and biologically active, are resveratrol, quercetin and catechins.
The antioxidants we are most focused on in terms of health benefit are a class of phytochemicals, or compounds of vegetable origin. Although they are not unique to grapes, they have very high proportions of them compared to most other fruits.
It has not always been established that antioxidants could be directly absorbed when ingested as foods, or whether they were biologically potent. Research in this field has cleared up the matter and is it now known that antioxidants remain vital when consumed in this manner. In fact, they appear to be more active and beneficial than the renowned vitamins of A, C and E.
Diseases of the heart and blood vessels, cancer and degenerative disorders are among the highest causes of death. The factors that contribute toward these ills are varied and complex, but free radicals and the process of oxidation figure very heavily into the formula.
Free radicals are highly reactive compounds produced normally as the body uses oxygen. Unfortunately, outside forces such as smoking, radiation and certain chemicals enhance their production – causing the body strain. Sometimes the body’s natural enzyme-mediated antioxidant self-defense systems can be overwhelmed. As a result, it is easy to see why there is much interest in supplementing with anti-oxidants derived from food and drink.
Some of the most unappealing diseases are suspected of being able to be alleviated to some degree by antioxidants. These include heart attacks, strokes, other complications of blood-vessel disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias and degenerative disorders, immune dysfunction, cataract and macular degeneration. Ageing itself may be retarded by antioxidants, but precise formulas for the relief of these conditions are not yet known. There is reason to believe that antioxidants are not entirely benign.
Recent studies of the cardio-vascular system show a reduction in the risk of heart attack in the elderly by way of a diet high in vitamin A (but not vitamins C or E), reduction in risk of ischemic stroke associated with antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables (but no benefits from vitamins A, C or E), and improved coronary artery function apparently due to vitamin C.
The antioxidants in wine and grape juice favourably modulate the blood clotting that climaxes heart attacks and strokes – they even help further by relaxing blood vessels and inhibiting the oxidation of LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol to its dangerous form. Similar, but less-established, benefits may result from the antioxidant flavonoids found in tea and chocolate, which are virtually identical to those of wine.
Wine may also have a role in combating cancer. As a consequence of its antibacterial effects and the scavenging of destructive superoxides to reduce tissue injury, these compounds may prevent cancers of the stomach and other organs.
The antioxidant quercetin has been noted to inhibit the growth of cancer and leukaemia cells, and to potentiate anti-cancer chemotherapy. One report has resveratol initiating a process one might term cancer-cell suicide, but another suggests that antioxidant vitamins may do the opposite and produce larger brain tumours in mice.
The above data is solid, but the benefits listed below are preliminary and are subject to much testing:
- Elevated muscle and brain function has been associated with moderate consumption of wine. One study focused on sets of ageing twins. The co-twin of each pair who consumed on average one to two drinks a day scored higher intellectually than their ascetic counterparts.
- A lot of nasty bacteria and viruses are inactivated by wine and grapes (but sometimes not by alcohol alone!).
- A long noted disparity is between the number of alcohol calories and ingested and weight gain. A peek into this mystery may be offered by the recent observation that catechins polyphenols (flavonoids antioxidants, as found in wine and green tea), stimulate the “burning” of body fat.
Overall, wine in moderation provides numerous proven health benefits, with many more being discovered. It is also heartening to note that drinking in moderation poses very little, if any, risk.