By Flower Aston
Ah, finally! Warm summer nights are here and we can relax on our back porches and patios watching cheerful sunrays tuck away for the night, possibly while sipping on a glass of wine while unwinding from a hectic day. As we rest there with our feet up (at last!), perhaps we start pondering if the wine we are drinking is such a good idea. Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about the health benefits of this longstanding drink. But is it all wine, or just a certain type of wine, and is there a real benefit?
Well, lucky for you, I’m going to help answer some of those questions right now. When speaking to the health benefits of wine, the potential benefits are fairly specific to heart disease. There is still no clear evidence that red wine is better than other wines, beers, or liquors, but it is thought that there are some heart protective benefits related to what is found in red wine and that there are greater amounts of some of these protective factors in red wine than other alcoholic drinks.
For those of you that are satisfied with the above explanation, skip the rest of this paragraph. For those of you who like specifics, then read on. Antioxidants (a molecule that stops oxidation) such as polyphenols (including flavonoids, which are a subgroup of polyphenols) in red wine are assumed to be some of the beneficial components. Specifically, the antioxidant resveratrol may help increase “good” cholesterol, formally called high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which helps bring bad cholesterol from arteries back to the liver to be disposed of, therefore decreasing the “bad” cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (HDL). Resveratrol may also contribute to protecting the lining of blood vessels in the heart and inhibiting blood clots (prevents platelets in blood from sticking together). In addition, some studies show that moderate amounts of alcohol itself, not just red wine, may help raise HDL cholesterol, decrease blood clot formation, prevent damage to arteries, and help with blood pressure changes.
You may be thinking YAHOO!; there really is a reason to drink wine! But before pouring that extra glass, let’s continue our investigation.
1) Most of the studies done on resveratrol have not been done on people, but on animals such as mice and pigs, and often times the dosage the animals were given in the studies that saw a positive effect were high, such as a person would have to drink over 264 gallons of red wine every day to match the same dose of resveratrol used in mice studies.
2) Drinking excessively can actually be negative for heart health by elevating blood fats (triglycerides), increasing blood pressure, and causing heart failure (from a weakened heart).
3) There have not been any direct studies completed to specifically determine wine’s effect on the risk of developing heart disease. Because of this, the positive benefits from wine reported in some of the studies that have been done may in fact be related to other factors such as increased levels of physical activity, eating more fruits and vegetables, and eating less saturated fat (animal fat). Here is an example to help clarify what I mean: A study could show positive benefits of drinking wine but the people in the study could be more physically active than the average person and therefore would have better heart health from being physically active, not necessarily because they drank wine.
4) Resveratrol can be found in other foods such as grapes, peanuts, cranberries, and blueberries so eating these foods or drinking grape juice may provide some of the same heart health benefits that wine may provide.
5) Drinking alcohol can lead to other health issues, separate from its role in heart health, such as alcoholism, liver damage, weight gain, stroke, multiple cancers (mouth, throat, liver, colon, rectum, and breast), gastrointestinal tract disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, suicide, and accidents.
Focus on that last line; one area that I think does not get as much attention as it should is alcohol and breast cancer risk. Hormones play a role in breast cancer development, and estrogens and other blood hormones can be increased by drinking alcohol. There is strong evidence that the risk of breast cancer is higher when drinking even small amounts of alcohol. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there is a 10-12% increased risk of breast cancer associated with each alcoholic drink per day. When women have 1 drink/day they have an increased risk, but the risk is even greater when women have 2-5 drinks/day, up to 1 ½ times that of women who don’t drink. This is significant because breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and according to the ACS, approximately 1 out of every 8 women in the United States will have invasive breast cancer.
I’d guess this information is quite a letdown for many of you reading this, so now that I’ve been a Debbie Downer, let’s think about how to process all of this information. Will I completely eliminate wine or other alcohol from my diet? No, not I; instead I look back to the importance of variety and everything in moderation. Many foods that we eat have positive and negative drawbacks especially if we over consume a single type of food. Instead, I will drink a glass of wine for the enjoyment of it and only once in a while; most of the time not more than the current recommendation, which is no more than one drink/day for men over age 65 years and women of any age, and no more than 2 drinks/day for men 65 and under (one drink is defined as one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. wine, 1.5 oz. of 80 proof spirits, or 1 oz. of 100 proof spirit). This recommendation is supported by the American Heart Association and the ACS amongst other health organizations.
Now then, how should you interpret this information for yourself? Well, what are your concerns that you know about yourself medically? Do you have an increased risk of heart disease? Or does your family have a high rate of breast cancer? If you aren’t already drinking alcohol, it is not recommended to start due to the many negative health effects. But, if you already drink alcohol, then consider your life factors and perhaps if heart disease is a concern for you, moderate intake of alcohol and possibly red wine may be heart protective. Or if you have diabetes and are already consuming alcohol, having a moderate amount may help with short term lowering of blood sugar (always discuss this with your doctor before trying, especially individuals who are taking insulin or blood sugar lowering medications, as combining these with alcohol are usually not advised due to the risk of excessive low blood sugar that can lead to coma and or other negative health effects). However, if you have a high risk of breast cancer, alcohol on a regular basis may not be the best choice. And if you are concerned about how alcohol may fit into your life, talk with your doctor about your risk factors to come up with what is recommended for you.
So the next time you find a few minutes in the evening (whether you have a glass of wine in your hands or not), kick back, relax, and let your thoughts wander. Besides, now you know the ins and outs of wine and its relationship to health. Thus you are free to let your mind ponder other things; perhaps the health benefits of chocolate!
Sources: American Heart Association, Mayo clinic, American Cancer Society.