Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cold & flu season ahead: Got wine?

By all accounts, the coming flu season is going to be a doozy unless we all get our H1N1 vaccination soon. There’s always the plain old cold too of course. I can never remember whether we are supposed to starve a cold and feed a fever or the other way around, but new findings suggest that regardless of the symptoms, respiratory viruses can be kept at bay by drinking wine.

It’s not as farfetched as it sounds. A few years ago, researchers in Spain looked into the question of how wine drinking habits relate to the risk of colds. Their subjects were 4000 faculty members of five universities across the country, who were tracked during cold & flu season for the number and severity of illnesses. When the data was cross-referenced to drinking patterns, they found that consumers of at least 2 glasses of wine a day were only half as likely to contract a viral illness as nondrinkers, and the correlation was stronger for red wine drinkers than for white. What’s more, the duration of illness was shorter for those who did contract a cold or flu.

There are a couple of explanations for this. One of course is that wine drinkers may have other healthy habits that put them at less risk (researchers call these “confounding variables”) but well designed studies such as the Spanish one take these into account. A more interesting possibility is that compounds in red wine have a direct effect on cold and influenza viruses, and there is good evidence to support that. One red wine compound called quercetin was tested against flu viruses and found to be more potent than oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), at least in the laboratory. It appears that the effect is quite specific, by interfering with viral replication. A more familiar wine extract, resveratrol, has also been fairly well tested against cold and flu viruses and found to be effective (again in a laboratory setting.)

What hasn’t been demonstrated is whether these compounds have any effect in supplement form. Resveratrol in particular is better-absorbed from wine in the mouth than pill form in the stomach. So my advice is wash your hands frequently, stay home if you are ill, and by all means have a glass or two of red wine with dinner.

And look for my book Age Gets Better with Wine in bookstores soon, or on Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com now!

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