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Wine is Good News for Health in 2006

There were a large number of research studies reported in 2006 that continue to substantiate the health benefits of wine. The modern wine industry cannot tout these findings to the public because of events that transpired back in 1991. That was the year that Morley Safer ran a televised feature on ‘60 Minutes’ about the French paradox. According to AC Nielsen, red wine sales were moribund at the time (17% of the market), but by 2005 have grown to 42%. Winemakers like Robert Mondavi and others wanted to promote the health benefits of wine following this 1991 telecast, but the B.A.T.F. blocked all attempts to do so. It was unlawful to make any health claims for wine on wine labels. The Wine Institute stayed in step with the B.A.T.F. and advised against advertising wine as a healthy beverage. To this day, the Wine Institute still discourages member wineries from promoting the health benefits of wine. In addition, the U.S. Public Health 2005 Dietary Guidelines contain no wording that refers to drinking with meals. UK-based Alcohol in Moderation (AIM) and The Desert Heart Foundation and its associated Reynaud Society are among the few voices that are bringing the message of truth about wine and health to the public.

Most of the health benefits of wine have been attributed to alcohol and a polyphonic compound found in the skin of red grapes called resveratrol. Many studies have shown that polyphenols protect against cardiovascular disease and have possibly multiple other far-reaching health enhancing effects. The mechanisms of alcohol/resveratrol cardioprotection are complex and beyond this discussion, but suffice it say that the protection stems from the following major actions working in combination with a number of as yet unexplained mechanisms: antioxidant effects, increase in HDL cholesterol, reduction of platelet function, and protection of blood vessel endothelial function.

Among all alcoholic drinks, red wine is the most beneficial. According to Science of Wine (written by Jamie Goode), a typical glass of red wine contains 200mg of phenolic compounds, while a white wine contains about 40mg. Wine contains more polyphenols than grape juice or grape extract because alcohol during the fermentation process helps extract these compounds from the skins. In addition, red wines differ in the amount of resveratrol they contain, with cool-climate Pinot Noir being one of the highest. A recent study by Bodega Catena Zapata in Argentina has shown that its wines have more resveratrol that red wines from France, Spain, Italy, Chile, and Australia. One of the confounding issues with resveratrol is that its beneficial effects shown in a number of animal studies require a dose far in excess of that recommended for healthy consumption of wine (2-3 glasses a day for men, 1-2 glasses a day for women).

Some recent research reported in Nature (November 29, 2006) disputes the claim that resveratrol is the key to heart health from wine. Researchers Roger Corder of Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and Dentistry in London and Alan Crozier of the University of Glasgow tested the endothelial lining of human artery walls with various compounds to see which had the greatest effect. The tests indicated that flavonoids called oligomeric procyanidins (condensed tannins that cause bitterness in red wines) repressed the production of the peptide that causes hardening of the arteries. The authors pointed out that resveratrol was “available at one one-hundredth or one one-thousandth of the levels of procyanidin.” The two researchers went on to look at regions that produced unusually long-lived men and the wine drank in those areas. The Nuoro province of Sardinia and the Gers region of southwest France have a large population of men who live past the age of 75. The local wines of these two regions have as much as four times the mount of procyanidins than wines from other regions. The large amounts of procyanidins was attributed to the extremely long hang times and fermentations (up to four weeks) employed, the type of grapes involved, and the higher-elevations where the grapes were grown. The exact effects of procyanidins have not been investigated in humans as yet.

There are a number of scientific investigators who are not convinced that wine is the health panacea that it is proclaimed to be.. They point out that moderate wine drinkers tend to lead a healthier lifestyle, and are richer and better educated. In other words, moderate drinking is more a sign of good health, but may not be the cause. Kaye M. Fillmore of the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing and a group of colleagues published findings in Addiction Research and Theory this year that adds to the debate about the health benefits of wine. They reviewed fifty-four published reports on the health effects of drinking and discovered that the majority of the papers had significant numbers of people who had recently quit drinking (due to age, illness or the use of the drugs that contraindicated the drinking of alcohol) among the group who abstained from alcohol. Only seven of the studies included long-term abstainers and these studies showed no benefit from moderate drinking.

One thing does seem certain about drinking: the pattern of drinking can significantly impact the health of the liver. A study from the State University of New York at Buffalo found that not only the amount you drink, but the pattern of drinking and when you drink determines the amount of damaging effect on the liver. The study found differences among the sexes. Women who drank alone and without a meal were more likely to suffer liver damage than women who drank with a friend while sharing a meal. With men, the amount and frequency of drinking were more important than the pattern of drinking, both with and without a meal. A safe weekly level for men was 14-27 drinks (14g of alcohol per drink) and for women 7-14 drinks. Another study from New York found that people who drank alcohol without food had a significantly higher risk of high blood pressure compared to a group of people who drank primarily with food. Research on Italian drinkers compared to non-drinkers reported that the risk of heart attack was reduced in those who consumed alcohol during meals only.

Alcohol is an important component of the Mediterranean diet that has been demonstrated to increase life expectancy among elderly Europeans, The Mediterranean diet consists of nine components: vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, fish, low amounts of dairy products and meat, high intake of unsaturated fats such as olive oil, low intake of saturated fats, and the moderate intake of alcohol, primarily as wine. When the Mediterranean diet is combined with nonsmoking, regular physical activity, and moderate alcohol use, there is a reduced risk of mortality from heart disease and cancer.

Following is a summary of studies reported over the last year in support of the health benefits of wine.

Life Span Italian researchers reported in December that moderate drinking (2-4 drinks a day for men and 1-2 drinks a day for women) may lengthen life. They gathered data from 34 observational studies conducted world-wide and looked at more than 1 million people in total who reported their drinking habits. The studies lasted from 6 to 26 years. Moderate drinkers were 18% less likely to die of any cause than light and non-drinkers. Heavy drinkers were more likely to die of any cause. Another study, which was widely reported in U.S. newspapers on November 2, showed that resveratrol extended the lives of fat mice. Research done by the Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging found that high doses of resveratrol may offset the negative effects of a high-calorie diet in mice and significantly extend their life spans. The catch here is that a consumer trying to drink enough wine to get the same dosage of resveratrol as the mice would inevitably develop liver problems. An 150-lb person would need to drink a 55-gallon drum of wine to get the same amount as was given to the mice! This study has spurred red wine sales but the researchers were careful to point out that their study did not support red wine consumption. A study published last February in Current Biology, found that resveratrol lengthened the life span of normally short-lived fish, and also slowed memory and muscle problems associated with aging.

Cancer Researchers, led by oncologist Joseph Anderson, M.D., reported in the September issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology that wine drinkers are 50% less likely to develop colorectal cancer compared to nondrinkers. Drinkers of beer and spirits did not enjoy the same benefit. The resulting anti-cancer benefit of wine is only speculation, however, as wine drinkers tend to enjoy a better lifestyle, do not smoke, exercise, and are less likely to be obese. There has been a reported link of breast cancer with alcohol consumption in women, but the risk is quite small.. Australian research reported in the British Medical Journal this year showed that a diet rich in folic acid found in leafy greens, citrus fruits and beans may eliminate any added risk of breast cancer caused by moderate alcohol consumption in women. Because a metabolite of alcohol in the stomach may destroy folic acid before it is digested, women drinkers are advised to increase their folate intake.

Stroke A Columbia University study found that drinking two 4 ounce glasses of wine a day reduced the risk of ischemic stroke by about 50%. This 13-year study was reported in the January issue of Stroke. The effect was beneficial to both men and women and participants of all races. Those who drank more than two glasses of wine a day had a risk level close to those of non-drinkers. This was one of the first studies on wine to include Blacks and Hispanics.

Brain In the November 11 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, researchers at the Litwin-Zucker Research Center for the Study of Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders in New York found that resveratrol assisted human cells in breaking down the molecules (amyloid-beta peptides) which forms lesions in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. This anti-amyloidogenic effect was observed in cell culture and may require concentrations of resveratrol that are not obtainable by diet and moderate alcohol consumption. What is exciting is that the researchers have found analogues of resveratrol that are twenty times more potent than the original natural compound. The author of the study notes that a glass of red wine may ease the fear of losing memory and even make for some nice ones! Another study conducted on a mouse model by scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, showed that a moderate amount of red wine consumption in the form of Cabernet Sauvignon helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The mice who drank Cabernet Sauvignon had 50% fewer amyloid-beta plaques than the mice that drank water. The group given ethanol alone showed a 25% reduction in plaques compared to controls. Two other studies (published in Stroke and Neuroepidemiology) this year showed that moderate drinkers performed better on cognitive tests than non-drinkers, light drinkers, or heavy drinkers. The results were most evident in women. Finally, research published in the Annals of Neurology revealed that participants who kept strictly to a Mediterranean diet were 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Some benefit also resulted from partial adherence to the diet.

Ears A British report published in New Scientist found that wine, in association with aspirin and green vegetables, may delay the onset of age-related deafness and reduce hearing loss from other causes. The mechanism of this effect is thought to be due to antioxidants acting on hair cells in the inner ear.

Eyes Resveratrol has been shown to reduce the incidence of senile cataracts by up to 50% and may also aid in slowing senile macular degeneration.

Teeth Both good news and bad news here. First the good news. Scientists from Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, reported that polyphenols can help in preventing and treating inflammatory periodontal disease. Red wine polyphenols modulate several inflammatory processes in response to bacterial stimuli by scavenging and inhibiting free-radical generation by host immune cells. The study was performed on mouse immune cells infected by bacteria that cause periodontal disease and exposing them to resveratrol. Research from Robert Richie of the University of California, Berkeley, found that alcohol fortifies the dentin in teeth by removing water, thereby strengthening teeth. This may not prove to have any practical value as the alcohol must remain in the mouth all of the time or the effect disappears. Now the bad news. The acids and alcohol in red wine can cause tooth erosion. As reported in the October issue of the British Columbia Medical Journal, frequent tasting of wine may potentially lead to dental erosions. The pH of wine ranges from 3.2 to 3.8 and demineralization of enamel starts at a pH of less than 5.7. Only two documented case reports exist. Rinsing with water and eating foods helps neutralize acidity, but may have no practical effect. The risk of staining the teeth with red wine is well-proven and probably more significant than the risk of erosion.

General Health= Tests at Madrid’s Council for Scientific Investigations showed that red wine has between three and eight times more fiber than white wine. In a major survey, researchers analyzed data from more than 8,000 respondents and found one alcoholic drink a day reduced the risk of obesity by 46% and two drinks a day cut the risk by 50%. Heavy drinkers were more likely to be obese. Another study, reported in the International Journal of Obesity by Danish researchers, confirmed these results and found that regular, moderate drinkers are less likely to be obese. Italian researchers found that melatonin in a number of grape varieties may aid sleep. However, the effect of alcohol may counteract this effect. The risk of type 2 diabetes (adult-onset) may be reduced by drinking moderately. The report was published in Diabetes Care. Fifteen health studies on individuals who developed type 2 diabetes between 1966 and 2004 world-wide were reviewed. There was a significant lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes among men and women who were light to moderate drinkers. Other studies have shown that moderate consumption of wine or beer may benefit women with type 2 diabetes by increasing insulin resistance.

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