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The Health Benefits of Wine

Columnist: Steven Levenberg, D.O.
April, 2015 Issue

Steven Levenberg, D.O.
All articles by columnist

The beneficial effects of red wine are substantially more powerful than white wine.

Wine has been a part of civilized society for thousands of years. For most of that time, it’s also been regarded as a contributor to good health and for its medicinal qualities. In about 400 B.C., Hippocrates noted, “Wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and the ailing man.” Wine and other alcoholic beverages have always been used to relieve pain and disinfect wounds. During the last few decades, the solid evidence of rigorous scientific study has documented that the assumptions about wine’s health benefits are really true and the benefits seem to be both broad and profound.
Make no mistake, wine and other spirits can easily be misused, and when that occurs, the damage can be devastating. Every study that documents benefits from wine or other alcoholic beverages is based on “modest,” “moderate,” “limited,” or “controlled” intake. This is generally and consistently defined in the range of 8 to 10 ounces of wine per day for men and about half that amount for women. For almost every study that demonstrates a beneficial effect from the consumption of wine, there’s evidence that consumption of larger amounts nullifies those effects while exposing us to many other dangerous consequences. Even Hippocrates noted this, saying “Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”
Is it just wine that has these health benefits? Not exclusively, but the benefits of wine seem to be so much more broad-reaching than any other alcoholic beverage that it’s reasonable to focus our attention in that regard. Dividing the subject even more finely, by “wine,” generally, we mean red wine. The beneficial effects of red wine are substantially more powerful than white wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most potent, followed by Petite Sirah, then Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel. No white varietal comes close.
Is it just wine, or is there a similar effect from grape juice? Well, it turns out that the juice from dark red/purple grapes is nearly as good as red wine in terms of health benefits. Studies have shown similar results and the same has been true of dealcoholized red wine. There is some indication that wine does contain higher levels of the beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds than juice alone. So grape juice may be a good alternative for those who want to avoid the alcohol. Whole grapes may also provide significant benefit and also provide a good source of dietary fiber.
Resveratrol is a polyphenol compound found in grapes, blueberries, peanuts, raspberries and a few other fruits. Although there are multiple polyphenols in grapes and wine, resveratrol is felt to be the most important factor in wine’s beneficial effects. It acts as a potent antioxidant resulting in wide ranging benefits to many organs and functions in our bodies. Here's a list.
Longevity. Wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than beer or spirits drinkers, although there seems to be some longevity benefit to all moderate drinkers as compared to those who drink no alcohol.
Brain function. In one study, brain function declined much more slowly in moderate wine drinkers than in nondrinkers. In another, moderate red wine drinkers had 23 percent lower risk of developing dementia. Risk for depression is lower for people who consume moderate amounts of red wine, but may also be true for other forms of alcohol.
Heart disease/stroke. Moderate drinkers with high blood pressure were 30 percent less likely to have heart attacks than nondrinkers. Moderate intake of red wine may increase levels of good HDL cholesterol, reduce bad LDL cholesterol and increase levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against coronary artery disease. Resveratrol and other compounds have been shown to decrease the risk of damage to the walls of blood vessels that leads to clogging of the vessels and moderate wine intake has antiplatelet activity, reducing the risk of blood clot formation. Blood clot-related stroke risk is 50 percent less for people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol. These may be the primary effects that result in increased longevity for red wine drinkers.
Diabetes. Red wine intake and resveratrol improve insulin sensitivity, resulting in a decreased risk for development of Type 2 Diabetes.
Liver disease. Moderate wine consumption reduces the risk of development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease by 50 percent. Of course, overconsumption is a major cause of alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis.
Cancer. Studies suggest that moderate red wine consumption reduces risk of prostate cancer (50 percent), colon cancer (45 percent) and lung cancer in smokers. Breast cancer risk in women is reduced with red wine intake due to reduction in levels of estrogen and increased levels of testosterone. Consumption of other forms of alcohol is associated with higher breast cancer risk.
Lung disease. For reasons that are not clear, lung function is improved in those who consume white wine, not with red wine.
Consumption of red wine has even been shown to reduce the risk of cataracts and sunburn.
If you can enjoy wine in moderation, you’ll be happier and you may just benefit your health.
Dr. Steven Levenberg, a member of Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, is board certified in the specialty of family medicine. He’s been in practice for 30 years, in Cotati and Rohnert Park since 1989, and is a native of Santa Rosa.


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