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Wine and health

As far back as 450 BC, physicians have recommended wine to combat fever, disinfect wounds and provide nutritional supplements. But Greek science also taught that the stars moved on heavenly spheres, so one has to be careful. Has anything been learned since?

Good science or good marketing?

Wine for health: Everything points to wine having some health benefits, but you only need to drink 2-3 small cups of wine a week to reap them.

Fortunately, many studies since have provided ample evidence of the truth of Hippocrates early observations. Since the 1970s many studies have concluded that moderate intake of red wine does indeed have salutary health effects, though the exact reasons are still debated.

Red wine consumption helps prevent coronary disease and possibly some forms of cancer due to a class of compounds known as catechins (flavanoids). Like resveratrol, which aids grapes in fighting fungal infections, they act as anti-oxidants and anti-coagulants. Free radicals, i.e. ionized oxygen atoms in the blood, are known to cause cellular damage. Anti-oxidants remove free radicals.

Other studies suggest that red wine can raise HDL cholesterol (the 'good' kind) and discourage LDL (the 'bad' kind) from forming. Along with cholesterol regulation, most of the pathogens that threaten humans are inhibited or killed by the acids and ethanol in wine. Not surprising, then, that until the mid-18th century wine was safer than water for daily consumption in Western countries.

A recent study in the American Journal of Physiology indicates that resveratrol also inhibits the formation of a protein that reduces the heart's pumping efficiency during stress.

According to a American Journal of Gastroenterology study in 2003, moderate wine consumption decreases the risk of peptic ulcers, possibly by ridding the body of the bacteria which causes them.

Even diabetes occurrence may be reduced by moderate (one or two drinks per day) alcohol imbibing, says a 14-year Harvard School of Public Health study of 100,000 women. The study concluded they had a 58% lower likelihood of developing that disease. The exceptions are pre-menopausal women with a family history of breast cancer. Those are recommended to consume no alcohol.

Of course, as with anything one consumes, there are risks. Many wines contain sulfites to which a small percentage of the population is sensitive. And wine, though absent fat and cholesterol, does contain sugars and small quantities of sodium — and, of course, alcohol. It doesn't take much to become too much.

Anyone with digestive tract disorders, liver disease or kidney problems — along with a slew of other ailments — would not be doing themselves any favors by drinking wine.

Then there are the well known effects of excessive intake, such as hangovers and, in the long run, liver damage. And, pairing wine with drugs, even normally beneficial ones such as aspirin or acetaminophen, is a recipe for disaster, clearly.

Unclear now about the pros and cons of wine consumption with regard to health? Good. Don't rely on one article or source of information — read lots of studies and take it all with a grain of salt. Then you can feel good about taking it with a glass of wine.