Red Wine: Cluster Bomb or Fountain of Youth?

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‘Alcoholic consumption in any amount is bad. Once in the body, it has multiple pathways by which it can exert damaging effects. It’s just like a cluster bomb. The consequences can be very injurious.’ Professor Shivendra Shukla, PhD, University of Missouri.

Not everyone agrees. In a paper published in The Lancet, Professor Serge Renaud at the University of Bordeaux cited evidence that ‘20 to 30 grams of alcohol a day (about two to three standard glasses of wine) could reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack by 40%.’

Alcoholic consumption in any amount is bad…It’s just like a cluster bomb. The consequences can be very injurious.

Shivendra Shukla, PhD, University of Missouri.

Main Points

  • Some experts say we should drink no alcohol at all; any is harmful;
  • Most studies are observational; that means they can show correlation but not prove causation;
  • Others show that moderately drinking red wine is linked to lower heart disease & dementia;
  • All alcohol is not equal; beer and spirits do not provide the same protective benefits as red wine;
  • You can gain the same benefits of red wine even if you don’t drink alcohol.

(If you like the odd drop of wine and want to stay strong, vital and your ideal weight, check out MMM! Lose Weight The Food Lover’s Way. It’s the anti-diet for for boomers like us who love the good life.)

The Game

The arguments have been shooting back and forth like shuttlecocks in a game of badminton. The WHO (the World Health Organisation, not the 70s group) tells us that ‘No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health,’ and the Global Burden of Disease study confirmed previous research’ which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.’

On the other side of the world, the Dubbo study published in the UK Lancet found that ‘moderate alcohol intake in the elderly appears to be associated with significantly longer survival in men 60-74 years [that’s us boomers] and in all elderly women.’

Over in the USA, Claudia Kawas and her team from the University of California found the same trend in the  90+ Study, which followed 1,700 90-year-olds. They found that ‘nonagenarians who consumed 2 glasses of beer or wine a day were 18% less likely to suffer premature death than those who abstained.’

...moderate alcohol intake in the elderly appears to be associated with significantly longer survival in men 60-74 years and in all elderly women.

The Lancet

Wine vs Other Drinks

Morten Grønbaek and his team in Copenhagen ran studies to find out if wine had special qualities compared to other forms of alcohol. They found that 3–5 glasses of wine a day actually reduced the risks of heart attacks and strokes by 60%. Just 1 or 2 drinks of spirits daily increased these risks by 16%, and by 35% with 3-5 drinks a day.

We can learn a lot from the Europeans. Wine is an important part of the relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle and people living in France, Italy and Spain have about half the heart disease and longer life spans of those living in the US, the UK and Australia.

3–5 glasses of wine daily decreased the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 60%.
1-2 drinks of spirits daily increased the risk by 16%
3-5 drinks of spirits daily increased the risk by 35%

Morten Grønbaek, Copenhagen University Hospital’s Institute of Preventive Medicine

‘Age Gets Better with Wine’

Plastic Surgeon Richard Baxter’s book of the title above tells the story of Jeanne Calment who died in her sleep in Arles in the south of France in 1997, at close to 123 years of age. ‘Her birth predated the telephone,’ writes Baxter, ‘and her death was announced via the internet.’

As a young woman she sold art supplies to van Gogh and other impressionists who came to Provence to catch the light. When she reached the age of 90, she made an agreement with her lawyer to subsidise her stay in her apartment until her death when it would pass to him. He died years before her, and his heirs had to continue paying the rent.

Apparently Calment followed a Mediterranean diet, loved rich foods, chocolate and red wine. A few years after her death, researchers discovered resveratrol, a compound that Baxter calls the most potent antioxidant of all. The best source, as luck would have it, is red wine because the process of making it extracts large amounts of resveratrol from the grape skins.

David Sinclair and colleagues discovered this miraculous antioxidant, and in 2006 ran some experiments with mice. ‘These mice were fed a Western diet,’ Sinclair tells NPR. ‘They were chubby, and they were developing the usual signs of disease that we see in elderly obese people.’

The mice that had the resveratrol in their diet were still obese, but they were relatively immune to the effects of the obesity. So their arteries were clear, their livers were nice and thin. Their bones were stronger. They could run further.’

The mice that had the resveratrol (found in red grape skins) in their diet were still obese, but they were relatively immune to the effects of the obesity…’

David Sinclair, professor, Department of Genetics, Harvard Med School

Brain Food?

In an interview with WebMD, Baxter argues that ‘You will look better, your skin will glow, and you will live five years longer than a teetotaler. There are also good studies that show people who drink red wine on a regular basis have fewer precancerous skin lesions.’

You will have a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and all of the things that go along with aging … the most amazing thing is that regular wine drinkers have an 80% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.’

Baxter makes clear that you don’t get the same benefit from white wine or grape juice. That’s not exactly news since red wine has been used as medicine since the pharaohs ruled Egypt. Hippocrates promoted wine as a part of a healthy diet, and advised disinfecting wounds with it.

the most amazing thing is that regular wine drinkers have an 80% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.’

Richard Baxter,

The Thought Police

Alcohol and heart health have been fertile ground for heated debate and censorship, because in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s politically incorrect to say anything positive about drinking.

Just check a few of the health & medical websites for quotes on wine and health, and you soon run into tortured prose. The authors simply can’t bring themselves to state in plain language that drinking alcohol in moderation is good for us, that drinking wine is better, and that drinking red wine is better still.

In his book, Baxter talks about the famous Framingham study, which has followed some 5,000 citizens of the Boston suburb since the late fifties. By the 1980s it was clear that those citizens who drank alcohol on a regular basis were in better health and lived longer than non-drinkers.

When the researchers reported this, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH, the sponsor of the study) told them to remove all references to the fact that drinking alcohol had benefits. It couldn’t be said then, and it still can’t be said today.

The Gods Must be Crazy

Baxter’s book is a long eulogy to the God Bacchus, and the stylecraze.com website supports it with a long list of additional benefits that red wine offers. They range from anti-cancer properties to boosting liver function, slowing aging, strengthening the immune system and more.

After digesting the full list, we kind of expect to find that red wine, if consumed from ancient goblets during a Pagan feast under a full moon, would restore the Great Barrier Reef to its former glory, or at least make the moon shine more brightly.

According to many sources, the magic ingredient in red wine is resveratrol, a compound in a group called polyphenols. The traditional making of red wine sees the juice and the grape skins (the must) go into vats, where the fermentation starts, and colour and flavour extraction is accelerated by pushing the cap down or pumping the juice over the top.

The obvious next question is: Which grape variety delivers the most resveratrol? Richard Baxter confesses to a fondness for Aussie Shiraz, while others point to different varieties. ‘Malbec grapes have the thickest skin,’ says Dr Liji Thomas, ‘and therefore the highest content of resveratrol.’

And If You Don’t Drink Red Wine?

After all is said and done, red wine doesn’t provide vast quantities of resveratrol. To get enough of it to make an impact on your heart health, you’d have to drink dozens of bottles a day. So much for the expert claims that red wine consumption explains the low rate of heart disease in France.

The polyphenol content of red wines is in the range of 1500 to 3500 mg/liter,’ says nutrition researcher David Mark. ‘Of this, resveratrol makes up 1 to 5 mg/litre, or less than 1%.’

Mark says flavonoid polyphenols known as proanthocyanidins (PACs) are most likely the compounds that provide the real benefit, and red grape skins are just one source of these. Other sources are blueberries and cranberries, apples, beans, dark chocolate, peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and green tea.

You can also take supplements containing PACs, extracted from pine bark or grape seeds; both are rich sources. The story goes that American Indians on the east coast used pine bark to boost their immunity during the harsh winter months. More recently, Atlantic pine bark extract was patented by a French scientist under the name pycnogenol.

Alternative practitioners attribute many benefits to PACs; some even claim they can cure advanced cancer. Apart from lack of solid evidence, the problem with these claims lies in the poor bioavailability of PACs. I prefer to get my share of PACs from real foods like blueberries, apples, nuts and dark chocolate. That way, I get the vital compounds and the enzymes that make them easier to absorb.

As you may know, I’m partial to a glass of red wine but avoid the amount required to get all my resveratrol from it. By the way, my cardiologists says no wine is better than any, but I won’t be following his advice on this. Another of his recommendations was Xarelto, a blood thinner that killed 2,000 Americans a month, ending in a $775 million class action settlement.

Sources of Resveratrol: red grape skins, blueberries, cranberries, apples, beans, dark chocolate, peanuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and green tea.

David Mark, nutritionist

If you’re also partial to a glass or red wine or enjoy any of these foods rich in resveratrol, you’ll love the MMM! Anti-diet.

It’s how to lose weight, keep it off and fight diseases like heart disease and dementia. MMM! is designed for boomers like us who love our food and wine. It’s not a diet – it’s an ‘anti-diet’ – which is why it works.

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Kim Brebach

Kim Brebach

Hi, I’m Kim Brebach, boomer, information researcher, technical writer and Joiner of Dots at M&M. In my spare time, I review wines and love to cook.

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