The story of wine is really a story about human culture. For thousands of years, the fruit for wine making (primarily grapes) has been harvested for medicinal, social, and nutritional reasons.
Whether you already enjoy a good glass of wine with a meal or are wondering how wine might fit into your health and fitness plans, this article will provide a brief overview of what experts are saying about the effects of drinking wine. As always, make sure to consult your health care professional about any questions you may have about any other type of alcoholic beverage. This is especially true if you are taking any medications since some medications and alcohol do not mix well together in the body.
Characteristics and definition of wine
Wine is a beverage made from grapes, fermented to create alcohol.
All of the familiar wine varieties people enjoy today can likely be traced back to the ancient plant species Vitis vinifera, which is cultivated on every continent except for Antarctica. Wines and winemaking shows up in archeology, ancient literature, and in a variety of philosophical and religious beliefs, some of which continue to this day.
Historians speculate on the origin of winemaking, with most experts agreeing that it likely was discovered by accident through collecting and storing grapes in containers that turned to wine before they could be consumed as fresh fruit.
Today, winemakers speed up the natural process of fermentation by adding sugars of different types, yeast of all kinds, and special flavors either natural or man-made. Wine in a natural state contains alcohol which preserves and protects the beverage, but sometimes additional chemical preservatives are added to the wine.
The vast differences in the types of wines available and the process and ingredients of each type of wine make it impossible to definitively say that wine is “good” or “bad” for your health. For the purposes of this article, let’s look at some of the general ways that a well-made, quality wine, without the addition of any potentially dangerous chemicals, has the ability to benefit those who enjoy a glass with a meal. Keep in mind that you can get the benefits of drinking wine by using it as an ingredient in many types of foods, so if you don’t care for the taste by the glass, you might enjoy it better in a special dish or sauce.
How wine can benefit your heart
Can wine benefit your heart? Yes, but just saying “wine is good for your heart” is a generality that most healthcare professionals would not agree with since the types of wine and quality of brands can vary significantly (as well as the amounts consumed). Keeping in mind that we are discussing a well-made, red wine that is enjoyed in moderate amounts, then yes, it’s safe to say that a glass of good red wine can benefit the heart of many adults by lowering the chances of heart disease.
Heart disease is a major problem in all nations. The World Health Organization estimates that heart disease and stroke kill 17 million people a year globally and the fatalities are projected to increase to over 24 million people each year by 2030.
So, how does a simple glass of wine benefit blood vessels and the heart? Medical experts say that nutrients called antioxidants in wine maintain blood flow in the human body by keeping the blood vessels free of the fatty deposits known as atherosclerotic plaque. This buildup causes a condition known as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is where fatty deposits clog arteries and these buildups are called plaque. Plaques are made of cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood).
Sometimes these deposits in arteries don’t just form inside the blood vessel walls, but inside the structure of the arteries themselves. As plaque builds up, the artery wall gets thicker and thicker when the deposits are not washed out. This narrows the opening, reduces blood flow even more and decreases the supply of vital oxygen to cells. This slows down the entire circulatory system, and can be life-threatening.
The type of artery affected and where the plaque develops can vary depending on the other health factors of each person, according to the American Heart Association.
Plaque may partially or totally block blood flow through a large or medium-sized artery in the heart, brain, pelvis, legs, arms or kidneys. When this happens, various serious diseases may result, including angina and chest pain, heart disease, artery disease, and kidney disease.
Sometimes plaque deposits become hardened particles that may break off and be carried by the bloodstream until it gets stuck in the circulation system somewhere, which is highly dangerous. Sometimes blood clots may form on the plaque’s surface, which is another serious health problem.
Wine has the effect of decreasing thrombosis or blood-clotting and decreases fibrinogen production, a blood-clotting enzyme. This reduces the “stickiness” of platelets, making it easy for blood to move throughout the circulation system. This increased blood flow reduces the incidence of clots, which may lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Wine can lower blood sugar levels
According to Prevention Magazine, the skin of red grapes is the natural (not added) source of red wine’s resveratrol, which may help diabetics regulate their blood sugar. In one study, participants who took a 250 mg resveratrol supplement (the ingredient in wine) once a day for three months had lower blood glucose levels than those who didn’t take the pill. Plus, resveratrol-takers also had significant decreases in total cholesterol and better blood pressure. Researchers suspect that resveratrol may help stimulate insulin secretion or activate a protein that helps regulate sugar in the body.
Wine also contains antioxidants, which protect the body from damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. Many experts believe this damage is a factor in the development of blood vessel disease (atherosclerosis), some types of cancer, and other conditions.
Because other diet factors, including the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in foods affect vascular health, more research is needed to better determine the ways in which resveratrol works to benefit the circulation system.
The French Paradox
According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, data shows that a prolonged and moderate consumption of red wine by the French and other Mediterranean populations is associated with low incidence of coronary heart disease in spite of typical high-fat diets that French people are famous for, plus higher numbers of smokers among the population. This is sometimes known as “The French Paradox.”
The term “French Paradox” was first used in The Letter, the newsletter of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine in 1986. Today, the French Paradox is still debated and experts don’t agree that the wine drinking common in France and other parts of Europe are responsible for the fewer cases of heart disease among those populations.
Still, people wonder how it is that the French have fewer incidents of heart disease when they eat foods (like cheeses) commonly thought in America to increase the risks of heart disease and obesity.
Some maintain that other factors come into play among the French: smaller portions of foods eaten very slowly and meals eaten with friends and family in a community.
Others maintain that the consumption of red wine among the French and other parts of Europe are paired with the consumption of natural fats like real butter and cream, not highly processed fats.
In his 2009 book, “Cholesterol and The French Paradox”, Frank Cooper argues that the French paradox is due to the lack of hydrogenated and trans fats that Americans find in so many processed foods, from chicken nuggets to frozen pizzas. The French diet is based on natural saturated fats (like those delicious cheeses) that the human body finds easier to metabolize. By contrast, the American diet includes greater amounts of saturated fats, hydrogenated vegetable oils which may have associated health risks.
Author Michael Pollan describes another possible perspective on the French Paradox in his book, “In Defense of Food.” He says the explanation for the paradox is not the wine, or the fats, or any single nutrient, but the combination of nutrients found in healthy, unprocessed food. French people (not all certainly, but in general) have fewer cases of heart disease because the whole diet is more natural. So the paradox is not any one nutrient, nor the amount of carbohydrates or fats or proteins, but the nutrients found in natural foods (like fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains) as opposed to overly processed foods such as products made with high amounts of white flour, salt, and sugar.
Can red wine lower cholesterol?
Yes! According to a recent report published by University Health News, which provides health information from leading universities, it is possible to lower bad cholesterol levels naturally with drinking low to moderate amounts of red wine.
Drinking one or two glasses of red wine a day increases beneficial cholesterol, (a.k.a. high-density lipoproteins, or HDL) which helps lower the risk of heart disease because the HDL binds with cholesterol in the body’s tissues to escort it out of the body and removes fatty deposits in the walls of large blood vessels. A study in 45 postmenopausal women with high cholesterol found that 13.5 ounces (400 mL) per day of red wine for six weeks reduced fasting LDL cholesterol concentrations by 8 percent and increased HDL cholesterol concentrations by 17 percent.
And the benefits don’t stop there. Moderate red wine consumption also lowers “bad” cholesterol. Researchers tested the effect of red wine on cholesterol levels in patients who had recently been hospitalized and found that the low density fats (cholesterol levels) significantly decreased for the patients who were given wine instead of water.
Red wine also decreases inflammation in the vascular system. The red wine does this by lowering a protein called “C-reactive,” (CRP) which is a marker of chronic, low-grade, body-wide inflammation. High CRP levels are strongly connected with cases of heart disease and other diseases that relate to chronic inflammation. Inflammation, like oxidative stress, is another key factor involved in the formation of arterial plaques and the development of atherosclerosis.
Dangers of drinking too much wine
Moderate amounts of red wine are linked to more health benefits than any other alcoholic beverage, but drinking too much of any alcoholic beverage is not healthy and can cause cirrhosis of the liver and damage the immune system.
One of the main health risks of too much wine is the damage that is done to the liver as it works to process and filter large amounts of alcohol. This is called liver cirrhosis.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a respected health information resource, the liver carries out several necessary functions, including detoxifying harmful substances in your body, cleaning your blood and making vital nutrients. Cirrhosis occurs in response to damage done to your liver with heavy drinking. Each time your liver is injured, it tries to repair itself. In the process, scar tissue forms. As cirrhosis progresses, more and more scar tissue forms, making it difficult for the liver to function properly. When the liver does not process correctly, a host of other problems also occur.
Drinking too much wine is associated with liver cirrhosis, but that may be because of how drinking too much alcohol lowers the immune system. Of liver problems globally, 57 percent of cirrhosis is attributable to either hepatitis B (30 percent) or hepatitis C (27 percent). Alcohol (of all kinds, not just red wine) accounts for about 20 percent of the cases of cirrhosis of the liver.
Excessive alcohol consumption can damage the immune system because the alcohol will prevent nutrients from feeding your immune system.
Although moderate intake of red wine has been associated with a boost to the immune system it’s important to know when to stop drinking alcohol for the night. Alcohol in large amounts interferes with the body’s ability to produce healthy cells, leaving a person tired, weak, and vulnerable to infection.
To get the most benefit from red wine, enjoy your beverage in moderate amounts with a healthy meal consisting of lean meat, (if you enjoy meat) plus fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Moderation is defined as 1.5 glasses for men and 1 glass for women.