How healthy is wine?

Scientists call it the 'French Paradox'. Wine may be enjoyed in moderation, and particularly red wine can have a positive benefit to our health, and protect us against certain illnesses. More and more studies are proving this theory.

A picture shows wine glasses
© AWMB

In the beginning, it was just a premonition that Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor and founder of western medicine, lauded the benefit of diluted wine as a treatment for headaches, indigestion and sciatica.

Even the Romans believed in the healing benefits of the juice of the grape. Julius Caeser prescribed his soldiers with a daily ration, not just to increase their courage, but also to protect them from intestinal infections.

Wine as medicine is still a theory even today, not being proven by modern science at all. Some regard it as a prophylaxis, and as a preventative. There are now several scentific studies that support the fact that a moderate, yet regular consumption of wine can have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, and some research even suggest that red wine has an effect in the prevention of cancer.

The effects of the so-called “French Paradox” were brought to the attention of the general public, and in layman's terms, adds up to the following.

During the early 1990s, scientists stated that the population in France, compared with other countries, displayed a significantly reduced rate in cardiovascular diseases. This result, even though the French are renowned for everything but not generally for their frugal lifestyles, with foie gras, rich sauces and lots of cheese; a diet that you would not consider particularly healthy. Yet the French love their red wine, and that is probably the reason, according to the experts of the time, that they tend to live more healthily than others. Red wine contains elements that, as far as the first study could ascertain, account for a lower death rate resulting from cardiovascular diseases, as compared for example with the United States. In other words, the life expectancy of the French is two and a half years more than their fellow Americans (76½ years compared with 74 years old).

This phenomenon caused a real stir amongst the Americans.

On 17 November 1991, TV journalist Morly Safer from the network show '60 minutes' interviewed French doctor Serge Renaud, who explained that the unique ingredients in red wine that considerably reduce the risk of becoming a patient of a cardiovascular disease. It changed the drinking habits of the Americans, and consumption of red wine virtually doubled. As a result, the French Paradox was investigated and researched time and time again. So what are the vital ingredients, that are beneficial to our health, according to the results of scientific research?

The first benefit is from the so-called 'polyphenols', that is the general term used to describe the colourant and phenolic elements (pigment and tannin) that contribute to the colour and taste of red wine. They are found in the grape skins, the pips and the stalks. If a wine is matured in oak barrels, it will also extract polyphenols from the oak. According to many studies, polyphenols, assisted by nitrogen oxide, help with our vascular dilation and contribute to improving blood flow. Their elements also work as an anti-inflammatory and to help to prevent thrombosis, and work as a preventative against cardiovascular illneses.

The polyphenols found in red wine are proactive in our bodies and are potent antioxidants, and binding and neutralising the free radicals. These free radicals are metabolic products produced by our bodies by chemical reactions, and are regarded as unstable molecules that cause cellular damage, that in its worst case, can lead to cancer. Resveratrol is another substance found in red wine that also protects our cells. Recent research shows that resveratrol can increase life expectancy in a variety of organisms, in the way that is regulates a gene, and can effectively slow down the aging process in cells.

Tony Turner is a molecular biologist at the University of Leeds, and explains how non-alcoholic extracts from red wine inhibit the formation of endothelin-1 proteins. This can be quite important for our health, as substances that inhibit the production of endothelin 1, may reduce the formation of fatty streaks in blood vessels as a result of a fatty diet, thereby also contributing to a significant decrease in heart attack risks. Turner states that “it is therefore clear, that the moderate consumption of red wine can have a benefitical effect on our health mechanism”.

Author: Herbert Hacker