For years, interest in the potential heart-healthy benefits of red wine has been growing. Can red wine protect against a heart attack? Is this effect true for other forms of alcohol as well? The centuries-old process of making and aging red wine might actually offer various mechanisms to protect against vascular disease.
Daily consumption of red wine has been ingrained in many cultures, particularly European cultures. France, an area known for high saturated fat intake and smoking, has garnered attention for its noticeably lower rates of heart disease compared to the U.S. and neighboring Great Britain [Source: Cordova]. This has become known as the French paradox; a paradox that triggered further examination of the benefits of alcohol, wine in particular.
Red wine is believed to have many different nutrients helpful in preventing heart disease, including resveratrol, quercetin and polyphenols [Source: Seeram, Goldfinger]. These might target multiple mechanisms capable of warding off heart disease [Source: Cordova, Peregrin]. Resveratrol, found only in red wine, in particular is thought to help fight cancer and diabetes, and be an immensely effective antiaging nutrient [Source: Halls, Guarente]. Others have speculated that red wine might benefit the body by affecting neurotransmitters, or messengers, in the brain [Source: de la Torre].
Several factors lead to blockages in the blood vessels that feed the heart. Having various nutrients and antioxidants, red wine in particular may help modify many of the chemical triggers for heart disease. There are actually several studies that support the idea that nutrients in red wine actually prevent heart disease [Source: Cordova, Peregrin, Klatsky, Groenbaek, Di Castelnuovo]. While it is still debatable which of these nutrients plays the most important role in prevention, it's most likely that each of these antioxidants is important. It's believed that red wine might offer protection against prostate and lung cancer as well [Source: Rotondo, Lacoviello].
What about white wine? The data is not as convincing as for its crimson counterpart, but research does show white wine helps reduce the risk of heart disease, though red trumps white in antioxidant/vitamin content [Source: Goldfinger, Di Castelnuovo, Donati]. This is probably due to the fact that red wine is made with the whole grape, skin, seed and all. Enthusiasts don't have to throw out their bottles of white. Just remember red's better for the ticker.
Naturally, this begs the question, is all alcohol beneficial? Some data does suggest that yes, all types of alcohol may help lessen heart disease to a degree [Source: Klatsky, Groenbaek, Di Castelnuovo]. But red wine was always the winner in terms of heart disease prevention [Source: Groenbaek, Di Castelnuovo]. And though studies do document some benefit with other types of alcohol, this prevention is not as dramatic or consistent.
Researchers and doctors remain hesitant to prescribe red wine or alcohol for heart disease prevention due to the risks of alcohol abuse and addiction, and drunk driving. The heart benefits that occur with red wine start with just 1 glass a day for women and 1-2 glasses for men. Even at these low doses alcohol can raise blood pressure [Source: de Gaeteno]. Higher consumption may actually negate the possibility of any positive effects [Source: Klatsky]. Those with a history of alcohol abuse should consider other options to promote heart health. Consumers have to remember that more is not necessarily better.
At the end of the day, this doctor recommends grabbing your favorite cab, merlot, pinot or shiraz and taking a moment to breathe in the day and relax. Cheers to heart health.