Have you ever heard of the French paradox? It’s a well-researched phenomenon that refers to people who live in certain parts of France where red wine is commonly consumed during meals having fewer cases of death from coronary heart disease, even though these people live a lifestyle that’s considered to have higher risks than those living in the United States and other developed countries. Studies show that this phenomenon may be due to the many cardioprotective benefits of red wine.
Taking advantage of the health benefits of red wine is not a new practice. Research conducted at Harvard University found a jar in the tomb of King Scorpion I, dating back to 3150 B.C., that contains traces of wine along with herbal residue. Based on the findings, researchers attest to the great antiquity of Egyptian herbal wines as medicine and their importance under the pharaohs during the country’s initial unification. These wines contained dissolved herbs, including balm, mint, sage, thyme, juniper berries, honey and frankincense, and they were consumed to treat a number of health conditions, from digestive issues to herpes. (1)
Aside from the knowledge of our ancestors, who used wine to treat ailments and disease, thousands of studies published over the span of several decades have proved that red wine, when consumed in moderation, can have a positive effect on the health of your heart, improve cognitive function, reduce oxidative stress and even normalize blood sugar levels. When consumed in small amounts, red wine can be considered a superfood that provides powerful antioxidants that heal the body at a cellular level, like quercetin and resveratrol. That’s why the benefits of red wine are so plentiful when you consume it in moderation.
1. Boosts Heart Health
Active compounds in red wine, including polyphenols, resveratrol and quercetin, have proved to have cardioprotective properties. Numerous cross-sectional, observational and controlled studies show that drinking moderate amounts of red wine has beneficial effects on many different aspects related cardiovascular disease.
Research shows that the antioxidant nutrients in red wine can slow down the progression of atherosclerosis, a type of arteriosclerosis that occurs when there’s buildup of fats, cholesterol and plaque in the artery walls. (2) One study, published in the International Journal of Molecule Medicine, found that moderate alcohol intake, especially red wine, decreased cardiac mortality due to atherosclerosis, but people who didn’t drink any red wine and people who drank too much red wine were at a higher risk of cardiac mortality. (3)
There’s also plenty of evidence supporting the beneficial role of resveratrol, which protects the heart cells from tissue damage after a stroke, inhibits platelet buildup, and decreases triglyceride and cholesterol accumulation. Resveratrol has also been shown to relax the coronary arteries, making it at least partly responsible for the red wine benefits that are associated with cardiovascular disease. (4)
Quercetin, one of the most important flavonoids present in red wine, has also proved to promote heart health by regulating blood pressure levels, reducing inflammation and preventing oxidative stress. (5)
2. Improves Cholesterol
According to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, wine consumption was associated with a significant increase in HDL cholesterol, with participants seeing their levels improve by 11 percent to 16 percent. (6)
Another study, conducted at Curtin University in Australia, found that regular consumption of red wine reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women by 8 percent and increased HDL cholesterol levels by 17 percent. (7)
3. Fights Free Radical Damage
The accumulation of free radicals plays a major role in the development of chronic and degenerative diseases, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases. The antioxidants in red wine help counteract oxidative stress by acting as free radical scavengers that prevent and repair damage caused by oxidation. Antioxidants enhance the body’s immune defenses and lower the risk of developing a number of serious health conditions. (8)
Because of its ability to fight free radical damage, resveratrol found in red wine has the ability to block the multistep process of carcinogenesis, including the various stages of tumor initiation, promotion and progression. Resveratrol is involved in the downregulation of the body’s inflammatory responses. (9)
4. Helps Manage Diabetes
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have found that red wine may slow the passage of glucose through the small intestine and eventually into the bloodstream, helping prevent the spike in blood sugar levels experienced by patients with type 2 diabetes. This research proves that because of the benefits of red wine, it can actually be part of a diabetic diet plan when consumed in moderation.
Both red and white wines were tested to determine how well they could inhibit the activity of an enzyme that’s responsible for triggering the absorption of glucose. Researchers found that red wine was the clear winner, inhibiting the enzymes by nearly 100 percent, while values for white wine were around 20 percent. The efficacy of red wine was so significant because it contains roughly 10 times more polyphenolics (a type of antioxidants) than white wine.
In addition to these findings, the study found another red wine benefit, which is that it had no effect on a pancreatic enzyme that breaks down starch and is needed by patients to avoid the side effects of blood sugar medications. (10)
5. Fights Obesity and Weight Gain
A study conducted at Purdue University found that red wine may help to fight obesity. This is due to a compound found in grapes and other fruits (like blueberries and passionfruit) called piceatannol, which has a similar chemical structure to resveratrol. According to researchers, piceatannol blocks an immature fat cell’s ability to develop and grow. It’s also been found to alter the timing of gene expressions, gene functions and insulin functions during the fat cell’s metabolic process. (11)
When piceatannol is present, there’s a complete inhibition of adipogenesis, the process of cell development. Piceatannol is so effective at fighting obesity and weight gain because it’s able to destroy fat cells early in the process of cell development, thereby preventing fat cell accumulation and, later on, body mass gain. It does this by binding to insulin receptors found in fat cells and blocking insulin’s ability to control cell cycles. It also blocks insulin’s activity to activate genes that are important in the later stages of fat formation.
6. May Help Prevent Alzheimers’s Disease
Research indicates that people who eat a Mediterranean diet, consisting of red wine, vegetables, legumes, fruits, fish and olive oil, have a 28 percent lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and a 48 percent lower risk of progressing from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. (12)
There’s even more research on the red wine specifically as a preventive measure and natural treatment for Alzheimer’s. According to research published in Frontiers in Aging and Neuroscience, resveratrol may control the main features of Alzheimer’s disease and slow dementia progression. This is due to resveratrol’s ability to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, and work as a neuroprotectant. (13)
Ingredients that Make Red Wine Beneficial
Red wine is loaded with antioxidants, particularly flavonoids like quercetin and resveratrol. These antioxidants boost many of the body’s processes but are particularly revered for improving heart health. Bioflavonoids are a large family of polyphenolic compounds that carry out key functions in plants, such as fighting environmental stresses and modulating cell growth. One of the best-known flavonoids that’s present in red wine is quercetin. (14)
Quercetin is one of the most abundant antioxidants in the human diet, and it plays an important role in fighting free radical damage, the effects of aging and inflammation. Research shows that quercetin can help to manage a number of inflammatory health conditions, including: (15)
- heart disease
- chronic fatigue
- autoimmune disorders
- blood vessel problems
- cognitive impairment
- eye-related disorders
- high cholesterol
- heart disease
- skin disorders
- stomach ulcers
The presence of quercetin is at least partly responsible for the benefits of red wine. Other flavonoids found in red wine are procyanidins, which are also present in high amounts in chocolate and apples. Research shows that procyanidins have potent antioxidant activity and the ability to boost immune function. (16)
Resveratrol is another polyphenic bioflavonoid antioxidant found in red wine. It’s classified as a phytoestrogen because it interacts with estrogen receptors in a positive way. It’s believed to be one of the most potent polyphenols and strongest protectors against free radical damage, cognitive decline, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Plants actually produce resveratrol partly as a protective mechanism and response to stressors within their environments, like radiation, injury and fungal infections.
Red wine is probably the best known source of resveratrol due to the fermentation process that turns grape juice to alcohol. When red wine is produced, grape seeds and skins ferment in the grape’s juices, which has a positive effect on the levels and availability of resveratrol.
People use resveratrol for a number of anti-aging and healing benefits, and research suggests that it can boost your health in the following ways: (17)
- fight oxidative stress
- support cellular and tissue health
- protect against cancer
- promote circulation
- protect cognitive health
- prevent premature aging
- support healthy digestion
- improve energy and endurance
- protect against diabetes
Red Wine vs. White Wine
There’s research that suggests that wine consumption in general is more beneficial than consuming beer or liquor. One study involved over 13,000 men and women between 30 and 70 years of age who were followed for 10–12 years. Researchers found an inverse correlation with overall mortality in people consuming wine but not in those consuming beer or liquor. Low to moderate intake of wine decreased the risk of death from all causes, while similar intake of liquor implied an increased risk and drinking beer had no affect on mortality. (18)
Although studies like this show that wine consumption can be beneficial, does it matter if you choose red or white wine? For one thing, antioxidants are more concentrated in red wine. The antioxidant compounds are found primarily in the skin of red grapes, which are removed after the grapes are crushed when making white wine. Although white wine does contain antioxidants that are present in the flesh of grapes that make up the pulp, the levels are higher in red wines.
Ethanol, which makes up 8 percent to 15 percent of the volume of red wine, has a wide range of biological functions, as it alters cholesterol composition, impairs fluid balance, alters the activity of metabolizing enzymes and has pro-oxidant effects. However, the polyphenols that are present in high amounts in red wine are able to counteract the pro-oxidant effects of ethanol and even reduce oxidative stress. Beverages that are low in concentrations of phenolic compounds, like white wine, aren’t able to combat the pro-oxidant effects of ethanol. (19)
It’s important to note that more wine doesn’t mean greater health benefits. Despite the healthy properties in red wine and the benefits of red wine, the alcohol itself is actually a neurotoxin, meaning it can poison your brain and tax your liver, among other bodily systems. Although light to moderate drinking can be beneficial, chronic heavy drinking can damage your organs. This is especially true for people who choose to drink cheaper, fortified wines that don’t have as much nutritional value.
Recently, studies have linked alcohol consumption and breast cancer risk. When analyzing women’s change in alcohol consumption over a five-year period, Danish researchers found that women who increased the amount of alcohol they drank faced a higher risk of breast cancer. For example, when women drank two more alcohol drinks a day over a five years, they increased their risk of developing breast cancer by 30 percent compared to women with stable alcohol intake. However, the same study found a 20 percent lower risk of heart disease in the women who drank more. Researchers concluded that given the increased risks of breast cancer that is associated with red wine consumption, choosing other methods to reduce your risk of heart disease is advisable. This includes engaging in daily exercise, eating a healthy diet and managing stress levels. (20)
Another downside of drinking any type of wine is that some ingredients, like aroma enhancers, stabilizers and clarifying agents cannot be found in nature. These additives are used to enhance the flavor, color and texture of wine, and to extend its shelf life. And unlike the food industry, winemakers aren’t required to list the ingredients that are used to make their products, so you can never be sure of exactly what you’re drinking.
Sulphites and sulphiting agents are also used in wines as a purifier and disinfectant. Research shows that exposure to sulphites can induce a range of adverse clinical effects in people who are sensitive to these additives. Reactions can include dermatitis, flushing, abdominal pain, diarrhea, asthmatic reactions and even life-threatening anaphylaxis. (21)
Do the Benefits of Red Wine Outweigh the Risks?
It’s clear that there are pros and cons to drinking red wine regularly, but the key is to keep your consumption levels to a minimum. That means having a glass of red wine now and then.
Studies consistently show that light drinkers have lower coronary artery disease risk than lifelong abstainers, leaving many researchers to conclude that red wine consumption exerts a positive effect against coronary artery disease and many other health conditions. (22)
But keep in mind, if you drink red wine to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease alone, there are other ways to do this that don’t involve alcohol. More important life changes than adding red wine to your diet are exercising regularly (for at least 30 minutes a day), eating a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, quitting smoking and managing your stress levels.
What About Alcohol-Free Wine?
To make non-alcoholic wine, you have to start with real, alcoholic wine and use two methods to remove the alcohol, vacuum distillation and reverse osmosis. Vacuum distillation involves evaporating the alcohol, and reverse osmosis filters out the aroma compounds and phenolics that are present in alcoholic wine. Because most of the aromas are removed during these processing methods, non-alcoholic wine doesn’t taste the same as alcoholic wine, and the texture is a little off since the tannins are removed. (23)
Research shows that alcohol-free wine may also provide health benefits. According to a 2012 study conducted at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, “the reduction of alcohol content from 12 to 6 percent in wine did not alter its antioxidant and cardioprotective properties.” Researchers conclude that moderate consumption of lower alcohol wines offer beneficial effects without the added risks associated with traditional alcoholic wines, so if you want the benefits of red wine without the alcohol it’s possible to find it. (24)
Another study, published by the American Heart Association, suggests that alcohol-free red wine can also decrease systolic and diastolic blood pressure. When 67 men at high cardiovascular risk were studied, researchers found that blood pressure levels decreased significantly, suggesting that moderate, daily consumption of alcohol-free red wine can be useful for the prevention of hypertension. (25)
Scientists have found that the darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content, and research points to pinot noir as the red wine with the highest antioxidant levels. (26) Dark red wines contain higher levels of antioxidants because the grape skins and seeds soak in the liquid for a longer period of time, thereby increasing the extraction of nutrients during the fermentation process. Although red wines that are labeled as organic may still contain some additives, it has to be in small amounts so I recommend you choose organic red wines that are a deep red color.
Stick to light or moderate drinking by having no more than five glasses of wine per week, and don’t drink more than two glasses in one day. I like to drink a glass of red wine once in a while in order to get a boost of the powerful antioxidants that restore the overall health of my cells and body, along with the other benefits of red wine.
Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of how much wine you’ve consumed in one day or sitting. For instance, during holiday dinners, as the family sits around talking and feasting, you may drink a few too many glasses of wine without even realizing it. Here’s a few easy tricks that I use to keep my alcohol portions small, even during parties, family dinners or special events:
- Plan ahead — If you know there’s an event or dinner coming up where you will have a glass or two of wine, then keep the other days of your week alcohol-free.
- Drink slowly — Enjoy and savor every sip, and try not to be distracted when sipping your wine.
- Don’t refill your glass unless it’s empty — Sometimes we add a little wine to our glasses, even though it’s not yet empty. Wait until you’ve finished the entire glass and then pour a little more if you want it.
- Order or pour smaller portions — Only fill your glass half way or keep smaller, sample size wine glasses at home. If you are out, ask if you can order a four-ounce pour.
- Drink wine with water on the side — If you don’t have another drink available, you’ll drink wine because you’re thirsty and end up having too much. Keep lemon water or seltzer on the table as well and alternate between the wine and water.
- Red wine is loaded with antioxidants, particularly flavonoids like quercetin and resveratrol. These antioxidants boost many of the body’s processes but are particularly revered for improving heart health. These compounds enhance the benefits of red wine.
- Other health benefits of red wine include its ability to improve cholesterol, fight free radical damage, help manage diabetes, fight obesity and prevent cognitive decline.
- There’s research that suggests that wine consumption in general is more beneficial than consuming beer or liquor, and red wine contains higher levels of antioxidants than white wine. That’s why the benefits of red wine are greater than white wine benefits.
- The darker the wine, the higher the antioxidant content, and research points to pinot noir as the red wine with the highest antioxidant levels. Thus, pinot noir is a great choice to drink in order to get the benefits of red wine.
- It’s important to note that more wine doesn’t mean greater health benefits of red wine. Despite the healthy properties in red wine, the alcohol itself is actually a neurotoxin, meaning it can poison your brain and tax your liver, among other bodily systems. This being said, it’s best to drink small amounts of wine now and then. Don’t exceed five glasses per week and no more than two in one day. This is the best way to get the benefits of red wine without counteracting them by too much alcohol consumption.