Is Red Wine a Health Drink?

Review of health benefits that red wine offers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

As you raise your glass in a toast to celebrate the season, you’ll be happy to know you might be giving your health some good tidings. That is, as long as your glass is filled with red wine.

There are beneficial ingredients in the skins and seeds of grapes — natural compounds called flavonoids and procyanidins that give red wine various health properties.

Among these compounds is resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skin of grapes, that may be key to red wine’s healthy attributes. 

Healthy red wine drinking

Before looking at these benefits, it should be noted and emphasized that healthy red wine consumption is moderate red wine consumption — a glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men.

Drinking too much can lead to all sorts of health issues, including alcoholism and liver disease.

And if you don’t drink alcohol at all, perhaps due to religious or personal reasons, there’s no reason to abandon your abstinence from red wine.

The red wine mystery

While resveratrol has gotten a lot of attention — and credit — for being the wonder ingredient in red wines, some scientists aren’t so sure.

Roger Corder, professor of Experimental Therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute in London and author of The Red Wine Diet, says there’s little evidence that resveratrol is the hero in red wine.

"It's a myth that resveratrol has anything to do with the health benefits of red wine,” Prof. Corder told the BBC. "Most red wines contain only negligible amounts of resveratrol and those that do contain some have too little to have any effects."

Prof. Corder thinks it’s the pips — the tiny seeds in the grapes — that are key.

While the exact reason red wine seems to be healthful remains a mystery, clinical evidence does suggest it’s a healthy choice of alcoholic beverages.

Heart health

Many scientists agree the antioxidants in red wine, including resveratrol, work to protect and preserve the blood vessels in your heart.

These ingredients tend to relax and keep the blood vessels pliable, thus limiting the start and progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

The flavonoids in red wine are believed to increase the “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and reduce the “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.

Both the alcohol and the compounds in red wine also appear to help prevent blood clots that can lead to heart attacks and stroke.

Red wine has also been found to reduce inflammation, which is at the heart of not only heart disease, but a number of other illnesses.

Reducing breast cancer risks

Alcohol consumption, in general, is now considered a risk factor for breast cancer. That’s because alcohol is known to increase a woman’s level of estrogen — the female hormone that feeds the most common forms of breast cancer.

However, a small Cedars-Sinai study published in 2012 in the Journal of Women’s Health found that women who drank 8 ounces of red wine a day for a month had lower levels of estrogen.

The researchers said that chemicals in the skins and seeds of red grapes slightly lowered estrogen levels in postmenopausal women.

After studying the changes in hormone patterns, the researchers said that red wine may blunt the growth of cancer cells as has been shown in laboratory studies.

Study author Glenn D. Braunstein, MD, vice president for Clinical Innovation and the James R. Klinenberg, MD, Chair in Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said in a statement, “There are chemicals in red grape skin and red grape seeds that are not found in white grapes that may decrease breast cancer risk."

Protecting cognitive function

Researchers at Loyola University Chicago reviewed 143 papers that looked at the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and various aspects of cognition (how the mind works).

According to these researchers, there have been two phases of research relating to the cognitive risks of alcohol consumption. The first period (1977-1997) evaluated mostly younger individuals aged 18-50 years. The studies over this period found no difference in cognitive function between drinkers and non-drinkers.

After 1998, studies focused on the effects of drinking on people over the age of 55. “These studies overwhelmingly found that moderate drinking either reduced or had no effect on the risk of dementia or cognitive impairment,” the Loyola researchers wrote.

The benefit of moderate drinking, according to these researchers, applied to all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and unspecified forms of dementia.

The researchers found some indication that wine had more positive effects on cognition than beer or spirits, but this was based on relatively few studies, as the type of alcohol consumed was not distinguished in the majority of studies reviewed.

The researchers wrote, “Overall, light to moderate drinking does not appear to impair cognition in younger subjects and actually seems to reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline in older subjects.”

Lowering ovarian cancer risks

A study from Australia found that women who drank wine had lower risks of ovarian cancer than women who did not imbibe.

The researchers compared 696 women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer to 786 women with no cancer history.

The women who drank one drink a week had a 20 percent reduced risk of ovarian cancer compared to non-drinkers, this study found. Women who drank a larger amount (two drinks a day) had a 50 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer than did nondrinkers.

Wine drinkers — particularly red wine drinkers — had lower ovarian cancer risks than women who didn’t drink alcohol and those who drank beer or spirits.

These researchers concluded, “In this Australian population, the inverse association with alcohol was due solely to wine consumption and so may be a consequence of antioxidants and/or phytoestrogens in wine rather than the alcohol itself.”

Sipping away depression

“Moderate consumption of wine may reduce the incidence of depression, while heavy drinkers seem to be at higher risk,” wrote the authors of the PREDIMED study (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet).

These researchers evaluated the alcohol intake of 5,505 participants in Spain, following them for seven years. Every year, participants completed a 137-item food frequency survey administered by a dietician.

This study found that drinking wine in moderation (two to seven glasses a week), along with a healthy diet, was associated with over a 30 percent reduced risk of depression.

Even lung cancer?

The California Men’s Health Study involved 84,170 men ages 45 to 69 years. Participants answered detailed surveys between 2000 and 2003 relating to lifestyle, including alcohol consumption.

When alcoholic beverage consumption was examined by how often the men drank, consuming one or more drinks of red wine per day was linked to about a 60 percent reduced risk of lung cancer in ever-smokers.

The researchers found that men with a history of smoking who consumed one or more glasses of red wine a day had an approximately 60 percent lower risk of lung cancer than men who did not drink.

This relationship was slightly higher among heavy smokers — those who had smoked an equivalent of a pack a day for 20 years (20 pack-years).

There was no clear association between lung cancer risks and intake of white wine, beer or spirits.

Which red wines are best?

If you’re looking to get the most health bang for your buck, you’ll want to choose certain red wines, according to University of California Davis researchers.

In general, the sweeter the wine, the fewer the health-promoting flavonoids. So you’ll want to stick with dry red wines, the researchers found.

Specifically, Cabernet Sauvignon, followed right behind by Petit Syrah and Pinot Noir.

Merlots and red zinfandels are lower in flavonoids, as are all varieties of white wines.

Drink responsibly

Remember to enjoy your wine — or whatever you drink — responsibly.

Review Date: 
November 25, 2013