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new resveratrol revelations

What a year it has been for resveratrol, the polyphenol molecule from red wine. Last year at this time it was the toast of the town, having been credited with triggering a metabolic change leading to increased lifespan in experimental models, then catapulted into the limelight as a potential cancer cure with clinical trials under the auspices of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline. Sales of resveratrol supplements were skyrocketing, with audacious claims about weight loss, brain power, and longevity, never mind that none of this had been proven in humans. But with the new year came new controversy. Two of Glaxo’s competitors, Pfizer and Amgen, published their own studies on resveratrol, concluding that the longevity effect was false, an artifact of the testing method. What few clinical trials there are in humans revealed that it is poorly absorbed and doesn’t last very long in the body anyway. Then in November Glaxo abruptly announced the suspension of the clinical trial and all further deve…

Believe in wine

Believing in Santa Claus may not be a scientifically tenable position, but it does come with benefits. As children reach the age where suspicions arise as to the veracity of the notion of a jolly visitor bearing gifts in the night, they come to understand that it is in their best interest to play along. In the case of wine, the science may be on more solid footing as to the benefits of moderate consumption, but what people believe does not always align with the facts here either. That is why it is encouraging to see recent survey data that people are finally acknowledging the connection between wine and health, even if there are still some areas of uncertainty.

London-based Mintel research recently released the results of a survey finding that some 85% of drinkers believe that wine in moderation is good for overall health, while wine drinkers hold that red wine is good for the heart. On the other hand, half of those attribute the same benefits to white wine. Given white wine’s relativ…

Glaxo pulls the plug on resveratrol drug: end of the line?

Resveratrol, the antioxidant molecule from red wine (along with miniscule amounts from some berries and the non-edible parts of the peanut plant), took the world by storm a few years back when it was announced that it could trigger a specific metabolic change associated with significant lifespan extension. Though the phenomenon was only found at first in some strains of yeast under certain conditions, it was believed to work by activating an enzyme system known as sirtuins, which in turn control the switching on and off of genes associated with longevity and a range of diseases of aging. The potential for resveratrol-based compounds caught the attention of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, which acquired the rights to it for US $720 million in 2008. But this week Glaxo announced the suspension of all development of their product, known as SRT501, citing concerns about complications in a clinical trial for the blood cancer multiple myeloma. Many now wonder whether resveratrol has gone from…

Hope for wine allergy sufferers

It seems at every talk I give on wine’s contribution to healthy living, there is at least one person in the audience who asks about wine allergies. Maybe they can’t drink red (thereby missing out on a lot of the antioxidant polyphenols), or maybe not wine at all. Sulfites are often blamed, but they are naturally present in all wines, beyond what is commonly added for preservation, and actual sulfite allergies are comparatively rare. What’s more, sulfites are higher in white wine, while allergic reactions are more common to reds. The question of why so many people have reactions to wine has remained largely unanswered until now.

A study from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Southern Denmark, and the Agricultural Research Council, Research Unit for Table Grapes and Wine Growing in Turi, Italy has identified a class of molecules called glycoproteins as the culprit. These are ubiquitous biological compounds that are comprised of a sugar portion (glyco-) …

Madeira for malaria?

Of all of the scourges of mankind, malaria ranks near the top of the list, affecting more people worldwide that the entire population of the U.S. It has been notoriously resistant to vaccines, in part because of the complex life cycle of the parasite, which spends part of its development in the mosquito and part inside the red blood cells of people. It is this latter part that raises an interesting possibility for treatment with the red wine compound resveratrol, as reported at a recent meeting of tropical medicine specialists.

You may be familiar with the antibiotic properties of resveratrol and other polyphenol molecules from red wine. These compounds come from the skins, where the grapes form them as part of their natural environmental defense. Plants, and especially ripening fruit, are vulnerable to bacteria, viruses and fungus just as animal are, and this explains the broad spectrum of antibiotic capabilities of resveratrol. Wine’s use as a means of purifying drinking water over…

Something new to chew on: Resveratrol chewing gum

My what a long way we have come since I first started lecturing and writing about wine and health a decade ago. For one, few had heard of resveratrol, the potent antioxidant in red wine, and many of those who had didn’t know how to pronounce it. Flash forward a few years and a few thousand research articles and now resveratrol is the flavor of the month, appearing in everything from diet pills to energy drinks. The discovery that it may activate the enzymes responsible for enhanced longevity normally associated with caloric deprivation catapulted resveratrol into the spotlight. Ads unabashedly tout it as the new fountain of youth. The latest version is a chewing gum, from a company called Gumlink A/S.

A few cautionary notes here, but there are also some good reasons why it might not be such a bad idea. Firstly, resveratrol hasn’t been able to explain all of the benefits associated with moderate wine consumption, and serious doubts have been advanced about whether it is truly capable o…

Wine and breast cancer: an update

With October being the annual exercise in breast cancer awareness, our attention turns to the ongoing issue of drinking and breast cancer risk. What we usually hear is the established advice that alcohol consumption in any form contributes to the risk of developing breast cancer, in a direct ratio of about one daily drink to a 10% increase. But if you have been following my posts here, you will know that the question of wine consumption and breast cancer is considerably more nuanced, and it remains entirely possible-even likely, in my analysis-that red wine decreases risk, in the right amounts. A recent study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle, in collaboration with major cancer centers around the country, helps to shed some light on the subject.

But first we need to revisit the question of why alcohol could contribute to cancer in the first place. As I point out in my book, a scientifically provable basis for alcohol leading to the cellular changes that p…

Wine and breast cancer risk with BRCA mutation

One of the more significant developments in the understanding of breast cancer risk factors was the discovery of two inheritable genetic mutations, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that dramatically increase the lifetime risk of breast cancer. These mutations are aberrant forms of a class of genes called “tumor suppressors” so when they don’t function normally, cancers are more likely to develop and spread. (Tests are available for these mutations and many women with BRCA are opting for prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction.)

Since alcohol consumption is generally regarded as a risk factor for breast cancer, it is important to know how it might affect women with BRCA. Given all of the confusion about whether wine consumption increases or decreases risk, it becomes even more important to know what to recommend. Surely, the knowledge of a high risk of cancer and not being able to have a glass of wine with dinner seems like double punishment. Fortunately a recent study helps to provide some guidan…

Well hello kitty: Are you really old enough to drink?

If you are a fan of the Hello Kitty products (the smiling kitten face icon from Japan) then you will want to know that there is now a hello Kitty brand of pink sparkling wine. Produced by the Italian wine producer Tenimenti Castelrotto in partnership with luxury goods company Camomilla, Hello Kitty spumante is currently available only in the U.S., Russia, and Singapore. According to winemaker Patrizia Torti, “'Hello Kitty … is a recognised cult fashion icon among teenagers and adults around the world.” Is Hello Kitty really grown up enough to be in the wine business? What should the minimum drinking age be anyway?

We are dealing with some pretty sticky issues here. We are conflicted about marketing alcoholic beverages to young people (not that Hello Kitty is exclusively a young brand) and there are definitely mixed mesages on drinking. In the U.S. the debate has centered around whether the legal drinking age should be 18 or 21. here’s a brief summary of the arguments:

Against lowe…

Better red than dead, wine drinkers outlive teetotalers

Wine drinkers outlive nondrinkers, or so the studies show. But nondrinkers are not all created equal, and that along with other factors makes it difficult to draw firm inferences about healthy drinking. For example, an oft-cited problem is what is called the “sick quitter” hypothesis, which holds that among the nondrinkers are those with a history of problem drinking. Their health having already suffered, the comparison may be unfair by lumping them in with healthier folks who abstain for religious or other personal reasons. Moderate wine drinkers may differ socioeconomically or in other important demographic variables. Anti-alcohol advocates are quick to point out such problems with population studies.

So while there are several studies showing greater average lifespan in wine drinkers, more needs to be done. One good study out this summer may give comfort to wine drinkers and help dispel some of the critics. The project, a joint effort of Stanford University and the University of Te…

What is responsible drinking?

The paper today featured a full-page ad exhorting us to drink responsibly over the Labor Day weekend, good advice to be sure. The main point was an emphasis on the equivalency of different forms of drinking in terms of the total amount of alcohol: One 12-oz beer = one cocktail = one 5-oz glass of wine. Perhaps the thinking is that people lose track of the true amount they are consuming with lower-alcohol beverages. Just a couple of beers or a few glasses of wine, not like hitting the hard liquor, right? The tagline was “It’s not just what you drink, it’s how much.” Useful information I suppose but perhaps an oversimplification when it comes to wine, as we have seen so many times before.

My advice here would be to look at the question of not just how much you drink, but how you drink. Beer may be consumed with meals but is marketed as a “party” drink, or refreshment while watching TV or sporting events. Historically (and I mean a very long time ago) it was considered to be a sort of fo…

Resveratrol: natural supplement or pharmaceutical breakthrough?

Before we delve into this too deeply, keep in mind that the answer might be neither one. Resveratrol, the antioxidant polyphenol from red wine that I dubbed the “miracle molecule” in my book, has had an interesting career. It first came into the spotlight in the early 1990’s following the “French paradox” story on the CBS-TV show “60 Minutes” as a potential explanation for the effect. Research attention ramped up quickly, and there seemed to be no end to the list of beneficial properties on health and longevity. The real breakthrough was the discovery that resveratrol was an activator of an enzyme called sirtuin, responsible for a specific metabolic change associated with dramatically increased longevity. Overnight an obscure field of biochemistry research blossomed into a massive supplement industry.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to the marketplace. The scientist who is credited with the discovery of resveratrol’s sirtuin-activating abilities, Christoph Westphal, parla…

Is wine-fed beef a healthier choice?

Leave it to those crazy Canadians to come up with the idea of feeding wine to beef cattle. While so many stockyards are filled with cows standing knee-deep in their own droppings, bloated from a corn-based diet, these bovine bon vivants are sipping red wine and eating organic. According to Jandince Ravndahl of Sezmu Meats in British Columbia, “They moo at one another a little more and seem more relaxed. There are a few that lap it up out of the pail. After they've had it for a while, when they see us coming with the pitchers, they don't run, but they come faster than usual.” Do pre-marinated cows make healthier beef?

Apparently it is at least more tender and has a sweeter taste, though I have not had the opportunity to try it myself. I can however think of many reasons why it would be healthier. Pairing red wine with beef has a specific health advantage, in that the iron in the hemoglobin – this is what makes red meat red – is a potent oxidant neatly counteracted by red wine’s…

Why the proposed ban on direct wine shipping would be harmful to public health

A number of convoluted laws came into place following prohibition, many of which are based on the same faulty reasoning that led to curbs on alcohol sales in the first place. Although wine remained somewhat available during prohibition (people took a lot of sacramental wine it seems), a ban on direct shipping to consumers remained for a number of years. These regulations varied from state to state, with many states allowing wineries to ship directly to their customers within the state, but gradually a system of reciprocity between states with such allowances developed and was confirmed in a 2005 Supreme Court ruling. An echo of prohibition rang out this year however with the proposal in Congress (H.R. 5034) to ban such sales.

Unsurprisingly, the bill was put forth by wholesalers, who would stand to lose by being bypassed. But rather than draw attention to the real reasons behind the proposal, the lobbying campaign in support of it trots out the same tired public health arguments that …

Wine is a food: New USDA Guidelines

There is a chapter in my book “Age Gets Better with Wine” called “Wine is a Food” because what I found in my research for the book that having wine with meals is key to unlocking its healthful properties. There is no question that people use food as a drug, hence the term “comfort food.” I would even make the case that. Given the epidemic of morbid obesity, the effects of food abuse far outweigh those of alcohol abuse. So if wine is indeed a food, what is the recommended daily allowance?

Though authorities have long shied away from explicitly recommending that people drink wine for better health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently updated its policy recommendations to reflect the ever-increasing evidence of wine’s health benefits. Notably, mentions of the benefits of moderate drinking have begun to replace the admonishments about the ill effects of alcohol abuse. These two drinking patterns are distinct and separate, though it seems to have taken some time to reach the point …

The weight is over: new hope for the wine diet

I write this post with a bit of trepidation, because anytime we get in to the topic of wine and weight loss the inevitable controversy about resveratrol diet pills comes up. In fact it is the most recent findings about resveratrol and diet that prompted me to write this, and like so many previous reports it seems to have been widely over-interpreted. Supplement manufacturers are all over it despite the fact that like nearly every previous study, it wasn’t done on humans.

The study in question was however done on lemurs, a type of primate, so in theory they are closer to humans than lab mice or fruit flies. There is however an important difference, in that these lemurs have a variable body temperature regulation system such that their metabolism varies with the time of year. In winter they gain weight, which provided researchers with a convenient model to study the effects of resveratrol. What was found with resveratrol supplementation was increased satiety (i.e. less hunger and eating…

Eye believe: resveratrol may prevent blindness

Here’s a word that you should know: angiogenesis. Sounds like a cover of a classic Rolling Stones song by Phil Collins’ former band, but what it refers to is the growth of new blood vessels. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not. In the case of some causes of blindness, abnormal angiogenesis is a very bad thing indeed.

Resveratrol, the superstar molecule from red wine, has long been known to inhibit angiogenesis. This may be one of the reasons why it fights cancer, since tumors rely on ingrowth of new blood vessels in order to expand. Abnormal angiogenesis is also involved in some causes of age-related blindness such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, conditions affecting thousands each year. A recent study suggests that resveratrol’s ability to inhibit angiogenesis might help to save eyesight for many.

Like many such studies, this one was done in mice. These poor subjects had laser treatments to destroy some of the blood vessels in their retinas. Normally, the…

Drink to your health: The wine-medical research connection

As I discovered in researching my book Age Gets Better with Wine, from ancient times it has been wed to health care and healthy living. In modern times, wine has come to support medical research more directly, through charity auctions and direct funding. Credit the granddaddy of them all, the Hospices de Beaune, for showing the way. But some wineries are taking it a step further.

A few years ago I had the singular pleasure of attending the Staglin festival, which raises money for mental health research. What a glorious experience! All the top wineries in Napa participate, and although we had more wine that day than was strictly necessary for medical purposes, it was definitely a boon to my state of mind. Congrats to the Staglin family for raising awareness of an issue that many find uncomfortable and which suffers from a lack of research funding as a result. (The event is held every September, info on the Staglin website.)

Ehlers Estate is another winery that ties its profits directly…

Wine and colon health: More than a gut feeling

The status of your intestinal tract may not be the sexiest of topics, but for those with problems such as inflammatory bowel disease it is of overriding importance. Whether or not you have a life-changing inflammatory disease, colon health deserves to be taken seriously - at least seriously enough to consider how wine and resveratrol fit in. It’s more good news, as you will have come to expect.

Inflammatory bowel disease is a chronic, relapsing, tissue-destructive disorder for which there is no definitive cure. Patients typically undergo multiple surgeries and are on medication most of the time. It is also a difficult thing to study, but there is a model in mice in which the condition can be created by giving them a toxic compound called DSS. Various treatments can then be tested and markers of inflammation measured.

A series of recent reports indicate that resveratrol and other wine polyphenols (again resveratrol shouldn’t get all the credit) can be quite helpful. Using resveratrol i…

Exercise your red wine habit for healthy aging

It seems there is no end to the list of benefits to red wine. One of the more interesting facets being explored is the question of how red wine compounds might work synergistically with other anti-aging behaviors to amplify the effect. We all know, for instance, that regular exercise is an important part of slowing down the aging process, but who would think of having a tipple before hitting the weight room? It’s not such a far-fetched idea according to some recent studies.

Exercise, like most things that are good for us, must also be taken in moderation; too much and the overstressed muscles start releasing lactic acid and other deleterious compounds. With age the problem becomes worse, resulting in more oxidative stress which counteracts the benefits of working out in the first place! A study comparing oxidative stress in young vs old mice given resveratrol showed how this wine extract helps protect against these changes. Using several serum markers for oxidative stress, a group fro…

The Prohibition Hangover: What a Headache!

One of the unanticipated joys of having a book in publication is meeting other like-minded authors. I had the opportunity to do just that at a book event held at the St. Helena Library in Napa Valley a couple of weeks ago, where the topic was wine books. It’s an annual event, designed to showcase the library’s extensive collection of wine literature. As it turns out, a theme for all three authors’ talks was prohibition. Attorney Richard Mendelson’s book, From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America, describes the conflicted state of affairs that prohibition spawned. As I discuss in my book, temperance wasn’t always interpreted as abstinence, especially where wine was concerned. But banning all forms of alcohol outright turned out to be akin to trying to slay the Hydra of mythology, a multi-headed beast who grew two when one was cut off. The concept of healthy drinking, based on a tradition of wine with dinner, was lost.

The history of wine and drinking is another one of …

Study Challenges Health Benefits of Alcohol: A Rebuttal

The news today is a study from France challenging the beneficial effects of alcohol, adding fuel to a debate we thought had flickered out some time ago. Dr. Boris Hansel of the Hopital de la Pitie in Paris, a specialist in cardiovascular disease prevention, acknowledged in an article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that while moderate drinkers are in fact healthier, the alcohol doesn’t deserve the credit. The study was an analysis of lifestyle factors of nearly 150,000 adults, and largely confirmed the long-held theory that moderate drinkers (especially wine drinkers) are healthier. But Dr. Hansel’s conclusion was that the benefit was due to associated lifestyle factors, not the alcohol. Moderate drinkers do a lot of other healthy things too, such as exercise more and eat healthier diets, again most particularly wine drinkers. (

Is it really as simple as that? Not likely. For starters, the e…

The Australian Heart Foundation blows the call on health benefits of wine

In a case of opinions in the rear-view mirror appearing larger than the mountain of evidence right in front of them, the Australian Heart Foundation recently released a position paper announcing that there are no health benefits to wine or dark chocolate. According to a spokesperson, the AHF is ''concerned about people thinking that in having red wine or dark chocolate that they are actually doing something to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease when the evidence doesn't support that.” The recommendation is based on a review of more than 100 studies over the past 10 years, and supposedly “puts to rest the popular belief that red wine, coffee and chocolate can keep cardiovascular problems at bay.”

( )

They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. The thing is, there are more than 3,000 articles over the past 30 years or so on the subject, and I have looked at most …

Time to reverse course with resveratrol?

It’s been an interesting week in the news for resveratrol. On the one hand, a new publication on how resveratrol affects the brain came out, adding to the very few clinical trials on the use of it as a supplement. On the other, Glaxo halted a clinical trial on resveratrol over safety concerns. Meanwhile, my piece in Web MD ( garnered quite a lot of attention and brings us back to the question of whether we aren’t just better off drinking wine instead anyway.

As I have mused about here before, clinical trial data on the use of resveratrol is all but absent, and what there is tends to show that it isn’t very well absorbed. So anyone bringing some clinical science to the field is to be congratulated. The study out this week actually measured blood flow to the brain during cognitive tasks, in other words things require thinking and concentration. Resveratrol improved blood flow and rais…

Does the type of wine matter?

Questions that seem to come up frequently when I am lecturing about wines include “Does it have to be red in order to get the health benefits?” and “Which types of wine have the highest amount of the healthful polyphenols?” To answer the first, red wines do have much higher levels of resveratrol and other beneficial compounds for several reasons. Since these compounds come from the skins and seeds, the whole grape (berry) must be fermented together in order for optimal extraction. White wines are made by pressing out the juice and then fermenting it without contact of the skins and seeds. So yes, it has to be red for the full dose, and it has to be wine not grape juice.

The second question is a bit trickier. There are natural variations among the different varietals of grapes that wine is made from, but the terroir (local conditions) and methods of viticulture probably have more to do with it. To understand why this is the case, consider why grapes make resveratrol and other polypheno…

More good news about chocolate and wine

Just in time for your Easter egg hunt, more news that chocolate is good for you. A report out just this week from the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam confirmed that people consuming chocolate on a regular basis had lower rates of heart attack and stroke. The study was impressive in scope, monitoring nearly twenty thousand subjects over a ten-year period, after a dietary assessment at the beginning. It was part of a large project called the European Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Those in the top chocolate consumption group had 40% fewer heart attacks and strokes over the course of the study as compared to the low chocolate consumers. A reduction in blood pressure was identified as the reason.

It has been known for some time that compounds called polyphenols, found in both chocolate and wine, are able to relax blood vessels and thereby lower blood pressure. A study from the Institute of Food Safety in the Netherlands (why are the Europeans having all the fun wi…

Wine boosts the body’s antioxidant system

It’s hardly news that wine contains powerful antioxidants, just like other superfoods including blueberries, acai, and pomegranates. What isn’t so obvious though is how these compounds are absorbed into the body and whether or not they actually do any good. This problem of how food-derived nutrients, along with drugs and supplements, are taken up and delivered to “target” tissues throughout the body is called “bioavailability.” There are numerous compounds that perform miracles in a test tube but just aren’t absorbed very well from the digestive tract when taken orally. Resveratrol is a classic example of this; with more than 3,000 research articles published, it’s considered a fountain of youth in a pill (or a glass of wine) by many, but it turns out to have poor bioavailability. There must be something else in wine that explains its long list of health benefits.

Researchers at 2 universities in Spain provided some insight into the role of wine as an antioxidant in a recent study. Th…

Wine may help breast cancer patients receiving radiation

Despite advances in screening and early diagnosis of breast cancer, little has changed in how it is treated over the past ten or twenty years. For most women, it comes down to a choice of mastectomy or removal of the tumor (lumpectomy) and radiation. If it has spread, then chemotherapy is recommended. The good news for women choosing mastectomy is that breast reconstruction techniques have improved substantially, but for patients opting for “breast conserving therapy” an ordeal of several weeks of radiation treatment is still standard treatment. And despite the fact that the breast is conserved, the radiation causes irreversible changes and even some disfigurement on top of the dent left after the lumpectomy. But now there is some evidence that wine may help prevent some of these changes, despite lingering controversy about the role of alcohol in breast cancer risk.

The data comes from a study from the Catholic University in Campobasso, Italy, a center where wine and health research h…

Is red wine the new women's diet drink?

Why is it that we act so surprised when each new study showing that wine is a healthy drink comes out? This week it was a very large study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, showing that women who drink red wine are less likely to gain weight. To be fair, although there are several studies already pointing in that direction, this one adds heft to the data because of its size (nearly 20,000 women) and length of follow-up (nearly 13 years.) But if you have read my book or have been following my posts here, your response is more likely to be “well, duh.”

Here are the particulars: The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, identified a population of middle-aged women of normal weight and recorded their lifestyle habits as a baseline. Over the period of follow-up, some 42% became overweight and 4% obese, as determined by Body Mass Index. After statistically adjusting for factors such as exercise habits, smoking, and non-alcohol caloric intake, they found that mod…

Is resveratrol the new aspirin for heart attacks?

The newswires are abuzz this month about a recent report suggesting that resveratrol, the polyphenol molecule from red wine, helps restore blood flow and limit muscle damage after heart attack. The typical headline reads something like “Red wine component pill successful during heart attacks” or something similar, with the clear implication that some sort of clinical trial has been done. In fact, it was a study in mice, and while the results were impressive it is only one small step toward the giant leap of clinical practice. What happens in mice doesn’t always happen in humans, so we are no where near the point where your cardiologist is going to give you a resveratrol pill when you show up in the E.R. with chest pain.

Nevertheless, the results are encouraging. What happens in a heart attack is that the plaques that build up in the coronary arteries that feed the heart muscle cause a clot to form, completely obstructing the vessel and depriving the heart of oxygen. It’s similar to wh…

The politics of drinking: is there room for moderation?

Much political hay has been made after President Obama’s recent physical exam, with the doctor’s recommendation of “moderation of alcohol intake.” The polarized lens through which American political debate is viewed sees this as an indictment of the president’s drinking habits, as though any level of alcohol consumption sets a bad example, and there is no middle ground between alcohol abuse and abstinence. But as we know, at least in the case of wine, the healthiest place to be is moderate drinking (see “modern view of moderation” posted February 15.) Abstinence and excess share the same risk profile for heart disease and many other conditions; it’s the moderates who are the clear winners here, but I will leave it up to you to interpret the political parallels.
The president’s cholesterol has been creeping up too, and dietary changes were recommended. Here’s where the opportunity for what is called these days a “teachable moment” was missed. Moderate drinking, especially wine with mea…

Is wine a health food?

I often joke that wine is a health food, but it actually is when looked at objectively. Of course in order to be a health food, it must be a food, which would in turn require that there be some nutritional value. The calories in dry wines are from alcohol, which is processed by the body in a different way than other carbohydrates, such that it tends not to cause a spike in blood sugar levels. So right away it has benefits over other calorie sources, since these blood sugar variations are believed to contribute to weight gain. Wine drinkers tend to have less of an issue with being overweight, so perhaps this is one of the reasons.

We all know, or have been told often enough to believe, that alcohol is detrimental and that such adverse effects more than counteract any potential benefits. But interestingly, our bodies come equipped with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, which does nothing but metabolize alcohol. The ability to consume alcohol is programmed in our DNA, so if we aren…

Should your doctor prescribe wine? Answer to NY Times piece

The New York Times online has a Q&A feature which today addressed the question of "prescribing" wine. Dr. Mark Willenbring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism addresses the question. (His answer and my comments here: The good doctor does allow that it might be helpful in very limited amounts for some people, but dismisses the data as "correlational." In other words, finding a correlation between moderate drinking and health is insufficient to draw conclusions. I agree, but there is so much more than correlational data to draw on. In my book Age Gets Better with Wine I use what I call the skeptic's checklist for that very reason; we need plausible cause-and-effect explanations and evidence to support those explanations. I will leave you to read about it in the book, which is extensively referenced w…

A modern view of moderation

We hear so much about wine being healthy in moderation. Then there is the popular (and cynical) saying, “all things in moderation, including moderation.” If you are drinking wine for your health, and who doesn’t, it is actually quite important to define the term “moderation” if we are to get the maximum benefit. If you drink for purely aesthetic reasons, or anesthetic reasons for that matter, then you have other considerations to deal with. But here’s the deal on moderation:
Studies on wine drinking and health in populations often use weekly alcohol consumption as a convenient measure. From data like that we get the familiar J-shaped curve, showing that maximum health benefits are associated with about 2-3 glasses of wine a day for men and half that for women, and disease risk about equal to that of nondrinkers at about double that level of consumption (the bottom loop of the “J”.) But we also know that binge drinking is particularly bad, so the pattern of daily drinking is critical. …

Wine and Chocolate: a not-so-silly Valentine

Silly me, I thought I could write up a simple blog post about the health effects of wine and chocolate, just in time for Valentine’s Day. So I go online to search the recent medical literature on the health effects on cocoa, and find that there are now more than 2000 articles on the subject. Needless to say, my comments here are based on a selected list. (You should know by now that wine and chocolate contain many of the same antioxidant molecules that have proven to be so beneficial, and that it has to be in the form of dark chocolate. There are a lot of studies now on how cocoa polyphenols lower blood pressure and help keep arteries clean, and the latest ones provide confirmation of the earlier reports.)

One article out just last month caught my eye. It turns out that simply smelling dark chocolate can provide a sense of satisfaction. The researchers proved this by comparing blood levels of insulin and the satiety hormone ghrelin in volunteers who either ate or just smelled dark cho…

No Sir thing with wine-derived drugs

Pharmaceutical giant Glaxo made headlines two years ago with their purchase of biomedical startup Sirtris for $720 million, following reports that Sirtris was making progress with resveratrol-based compounds that might extend lifespan. But doubts are now being cast on the question of whether wine-derived molecules even work for anti-aging the way that scientists at Sirtris believe. It’s an important story for consumers as well as investors, given that use of resveratrol supplements continues to rise. (Consumer Lab reports that resveratrol use by consumers surged some 66% last year.)

If you have been following the wine and health story, you know why resveratrol is such an exciting compound. It has impressive anti-cancer properties (in lab studies), fights heart disease (again, not clinically proven), diabetes (if you happen to be a lab rat), and the list goes on. What is really interesting is that it appears to activate enzymes called sirtuins (the corresponding genes are called Sir1-…

American Heart Association drops the bottle on lifestyle recommendations

In a drastic lurch back to Victorian era temperance, the American Heart Association came out this month with lifestyle recommendations intended to promote “ideal cardiovascular health.” Their list of “Life’s Simple Seven” includes:
• Never smoked or quit more than one year ago;
• Body mass index less than 25 kg/m2 (I.e., not overweight)
• Physical activity of at least 150 minutes (moderate intensity) or 75 minutes (vigorous intensity) each week;
• Four to five of the key components of a healthy diet consistent with current American Heart Association guideline recommendations;
• Total cholesterol of less than 200;
• Blood pressure below 120/80;
• Fasting blood glucose less than 100.

Not much to quibble with there it would seem, but as always the devil is in the details. Let’s look more closely at the “healthy diet” components:

• Vegetables and fruits are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber — and they’re low in calories. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables may help you cont…

Wine and the Happiness Connection

One of the more interesting things I came across when I was researching the factors influencing longevity for Age Gets Better with Wine was the fact that happy, connected people live longer. It makes sense intuitively of course, but what makes it particularly encouraging is that nurturing our connections to community and friends, something we can simply decide to do, has a large influence on lifespan. Throw in a little wine, some exercise, and healthy eating and you’ve got it made.

It turns out that connectedness is linked to happiness too. In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler reveal that networks wield more control over our lives than we realize. Through our social networks, even beyond our circles of friends, we tend to be either overweight, happy, sad, successful or not in measurable ways. Knowing happy people increases the odds of you being happy by 9%, while having unhappy p…

Resveratrol clinical trials: What’s the evidence?

If you are interested in anti-aging, or just the science behind healthy wine drinking, you must have seen the ads for resveratrol supplements. “All the benefits of wine without the alcohol” they might say, implying that the science is in and the matter decided. There is an impressive dossier of resveratrol research, now totaling some 3,000 research papers, and the beneficial effects of this wine-derived molecule are myriad. There is good reason why I dubbed resveratrol the “miracle molecule” in my book Age Gets Better with Wine.
In the book I also introduced what I call the “skeptic’s checklist,” a useful tool for evaluating claims about medical interventions and miracle supplements. The reason this is important is that while data from laboratory studies can reveal interesting properties and lines of research, what happens in a test tube is meaningless unless the effect can be documented in a clinical trial in humans. In order to obtain FDA clearance, for example, clinical trials need…

What causes those wine headaches? Hope for a solution

It seems like every time I give a talk about wine and health there is at least one person in the audience who asks about headaches. They would like to drink wine, they say, but sometimes it gives them a headache. Or another frequent question relates to why they didn’t get headaches drinking wine in Europe but domestic wines do; is it the sulfites?

The good news is that scientists are developing a good understanding of what triggers headaches for some people, and it doesn’t seem to be sulfites; all wines contain them. It probably isn’t the alcohol, unless you are prone to migraines or to imbibing too much. The culprit for most people is a class of compounds called biogenic amines, the most familiar of which is histamine. These are not products of the wine itself, but of bacterial contaminants. Fortunately there are fairly quick tests that can be done do measure the levels of biogenic amines, though these aren’t routinely done.

But without testing, the inherent variability of amine produc…