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A fond farewell to the father of the French Paradox

This has been a year of continued affirmation of the role of wine as a central component of healthy living, but rather than a review I would like to pay tribute to Serge Renaud, considered by many to be the father of the “French paradox.” It was a seminal moment in 1991, on the CBS-television show “60 Minutes” when Dr. Renaud offered that “A moderate and regular wine consumption of one to three drinks per day, which is common in France, protects us” from the much higher incidence of heart disease in America. Dr. Renaud collapsed walking to the beach near his Mediterranean home on October 28 at age 85.
Though born the son of a winemaker, Renaud’s early studies focused on dietary factors comprising what would later come to be known as the Mediterranean Diet. There were important differences in the composition of dietary fats -specifically omega -3 and 6 fatty acids - that seemed to hold the key. Over time however it became apparent that regular wine consumption was a critical part of the…

Red wine headaches syndrome: Why is it still a problem?

If you are prone to headaches from red wine, would you drink wine made from genetically modified yeast if you knew you wouldn’t react to it? The problem of headaches from wine is one of the most frequent questions I get at lectures on wine and health. From an anti-aging point of view, evidence clearly points to red wine as a healthy habit. But if it gives you headaches, it just isn’t worth it. The good news is that we know what causes the headaches and how to make wine that doesn’t provoke them; the bad news is that almost no one is making wine that way. The reasons behind this are enough to cause befuddle the brain and cause a headache all over again.
You can thank University of British Columbia Biotechnology Professor Hennie van Vuuren for developing the solution. A sufferer of the red wine syndrome himself, Dr. van Vuuren has been working on the solution for some 15 years. The problem stems from compounds called biogenic amines, which include histamine and some rather nasty soundin…

Resveratrol, wine, and cancer: an update

A recent study on the effects of resveratrol on prostate cancer highlights one of the tantalizing aspects of this red wine antioxidant: a long list of potential anti-cancer properties. It must be pointed out however that nearly all of the evidence for this comes from laboratory research, and though there are some clinical trials in progress it is premature to claim anti-cancer benefits for resveratrol supplements. But if any of it pans out it could lead to significant breakthroughs.
One of the things that make resveratrol so intriguing as an anti-cancer agent is that it not only suppresses cancer cell growth but seems to protect normal cells from the toxic effects of cancer treatment. Radiation treatment is a particularly troublesome therapy because of lasting effects on healthy cells in the treatment zone. But several lines of evidence suggest that resveratrol may pull off the ultimate hat trick: protecting the healthy cells while sensitizing cancerous cells to radiation.
This most r…

New study on resveratrol supplements widely misinterpreted

Quote: “A new study is hinting women may want to think twice before picking up a glass and toasting to their health. Health Magazine is reporting that researchers from Washington University School of Medicine have discovered that healthy middle-aged women do not benefit from taking resveratrol supplements.” (from Fox News)
Am I the only one who sees that those two sentences do not make sense? What the study showed is that taking a particular supplement does no good, not that drinking red wine is bad. Seems pretty simple to me but it points out a common misconception that needs to be dispelled (again). The thinking goes like this: We know from a multitude of studies that red wine consumption in moderation is linked to a long list of health benefits. These include lower rates of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes, to name just a few. But alcohol is of course bad for you, so the whole benefit must be from something else.
Enter resveratrol, the miracle molecul…

Is de-alcoholized wine better for health?

Over the past few weeks there has been a flurry of news coverage over a clinical study finding that de-alcoholized red wine lowered blood pressure, but not whole wine. The usual interpretation was that wine without the alcohol was probably a better choice for health, with the blood pressure drop projected to equate to about a 14% decrease in heart disease risk. Supplement makers proclaimed that their wine-derived resveratrol pills were therefore a smarter choice, others concluded that grape juice would do the trick. But other studies out on alcohol found unique benefits, and as you have seen here before a broader view is needed in order to see the picture clearly.
As with most studies, the blood pressure experiment had problems. For one, there was no “control” group for comparison. But the bigger question always is whether these findings translate into anything meaningful in terms of overall health and longevity. It is not reasonable to assume that a single parameter such as blood pres…

of mice, men and merlot

The latest round of enthusiastic news coverage about a study proclaiming that red wine improves balance and prevents falls in the elderly raises some important questions. First a summary of the study, which was presented at a recent conference but not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal: Lab mice fed high doses of resveratrol, a potent antioxidant from red wine, maintained better balance and mobility as they aged. Their nerve tissue resisted the effects of age, and follow-up studies showed that the neurons treated with resveratrol survived toxic doses of a brain chemical called dopamine, which causes stress similar to aging leading to cell death.
The implications of the study were widely interpreted to mean that resveratrol, and by extension red wine, could improve mobility in seniors and prevent fall that can lead to hip fractures and other problems. There are a few really important caveats here though: first, the doses of resveratrol were extraordinarily high, not achievable wi…

Is wine a functional food?

Then again, didn’t all foods used to be functional? In the modern era of bulging waistlines, it would seem that nutrition has taken a back seat to processed foods engineered to tweak our taste buds and pleasure centers in the brain. And it is all too easy – and wrong – to cast wine as merely empty calories. But can we really consider wine to be a food, especially a nutritious one?
To begin with, the term “functional food” means that it contains specific nutrients with identifiable health benefits. Sometimes these are added in, as with vitamins A and D in milk or calcium in orange juice. The way I see it, in a well-balanced diet there shouldn’t be a need for such enhancements. Wine for example naturally contains an abundance of antioxidant polyphenols, nutritionally vital ingredients that are increasingly lacking in many foods. A glass of wine with dinner on a daily basis is associated with longer life and better health by a variety of measures, a claim difficult to prove with vitamin s…

New study reveals how resveratrol might work (don’t lose your SIRT)

The latest study on resveratrol, the touted polyphenol from red wine, seems at first glance to restore some lost credibility to its increasingly questioned anti-aging capabilities. It has been widely reported but we know from experience by now that a single study never tells the whole story. The whole story would take more space than I have here so here is what you need to know:
There is a unique phenomenon called caloric restriction that extends lifespan dramatically, at least in experimental animals and organisms. By limiting caloric intake severely, a metabolic change occurs that results from activation of a family of genes know as SIRT, which code for proteins known as sirtuins. Resveratrol has been reported to activate sirtuins and thereby cause lifespan extension, at least for yeast cells, fruitflies and worms. Getting it to do the same thing in mammals such as mice and men has been problematic however, casting doubt on the use of resveratrol as a miracle anti-aging tonic. Some l…

The red wine diet to lose weight? Believe it (sort of)

If you follow the news about red wine you will have been deluged with coverage of a recent study finding that it prevents fat cells from maturing, and is therefore the latest miracle weight loss solution. The specific ingredient, a polyphenol called piceatannol, has not previously received a lot of attention. It does provide some answers to questions such as why wine drinkers are less likely to gain weight or develop type 2 diabetes, but raises some new questions too.
What the study found is that piceatannol inhibits the development of young fat cells – called preadipocytes – into permanent adult type fat cells. It accomplishes this by blocking the effect of insulin which activates genes in these cells that signal them to grow up and store fat. In theory, then, this could explain one of the benefits of a daily tipple.
The study also sheds some light on the role of resveratrol, the molecule that has received so much attention in recent years. As I pointed out in my book Age Gets Better w…

new research shows why red wine could reduce breast cancer risk

Last week's post referenced a population study that purported to show that any wine consumption even in moderation would increase the chances of getting beast cancer, but as I repeatedly point out the data is highly inconsistent. A new study further contradicts this by revealing some of the ways that resveratrol (from red wine) directly influences cancer-prone breast cells in human subjects. Researchers at the University of North Dalota recruited 39 women at increased risk for breast cancer (based on genetic analysis) and then monitored the effects of oral resveratrol supplementation for 12 weeks. Cells from the breast were sampled and analyzed, revealing that resveratrol helped activate what are called tumor suppressor genes.
This is particularly powerful information because studies of this type -prospective trials in human subjects with objectively verifiable results - provide the highest level of evidence. (In contrast, population studies such as the one referenced in last wee…

Wine and breast cancer: Here we go again

Yet another article about a possible link between wine and breast cancer is in the news, and as usual it is being widely quoted without any critical analysis or perspective. The article in question, a review of previously published studies, estimates that even a glass of wine per day increases risk of breast cancer and estimates that 1-2% of all breast cancer cases are attributable to light drinking alone. Rather than pick apart the article item by item, which would take all day since there are so many issues, I will highlight a few important things.
First, there are fundamental problems with the way that these types of studies are done, and reviewing them simply magnifies the underlying mistakes. Here’s the thing: in order to know if for example a glass of wine per day affected breast cancer risk, you would have to follow a large population of women who drink only wine, only a glass per day, every day, rarely more, rarely anything other than wine, and rarely not having a drink; this …

Wine and civilization: we wouldn’t be here without it

As a physician I go to a lot of symposia, the term often used for meetings where exchange if ideas is the goal. It is interesting to note that the word “symposium” actually derives from classical Greek, meaning“to drink together.” The tradition was that following dinner, the men would retire to a special room dedicated to the purpose of drinking and philosophical discussions. There would be toasts to the gods, ancestors, and fallen heroes, then the revelry would truly begin, often lasting until the early hours of the morning. Here’s an excerpt from Plato: “Socrates took his seat … then they turned their attention to drinking. “ A member of the party named Pausanius said “Well gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a hangover from yesterday. “ Hard to believe that the canons of Greek philosophy, the underpinnings of modern civilization, had such origins as this.
But going back even further, wine is what civilized our nomadic hunter-gatherer ance…

Is alcohol necessary for wine’s health benefits?

High on the list of controversies about wine and health is the alcohol question, one I get asked about every time I do a seminar on the subject. Why not grape juice, or for that matter wine's goodness in a pill? New research from the University of Barcelona took the question head on and it's good news for wine drinkers.

There are so many thousands of papers on wine and health now that you can be forgiven for not keeping up (which I am taking care of for you here) but in order to understand the implications of this latest study we need a little background. For one, as I said in the book, wine is not just grape juice without the alcohol; the content of polyphenols antioxidants is much higher in wine for several reasons (for another, grape juice is high in sugar.) There is a great temptation to assume that we could just take the polyphenols from grapes and put them into supplement form, which indeed many have. For non drinkers and occasions where wine consumption is inappropriate, …

New evidence that red wine lowers risk of breast cancer

Does drinking red wine increase risk of breast cancer? If you have been following the news over the past few years, you might have a hard time justifying that glass of wine with dinner, as we are told that even in moderation the risk of breast cancer increases. But as I have said here before (see post from Nov 2 2011), the whole topic is widely misunderstood and oversimplified, despite the declarations of medical authorities. But a new study helps to shed some light on the subject.
So why is the party line so negative on wine? At first glance, the evidence seems overwhelming: dozens of studies showing that consumption of alcohol in any form – red or white wine, beer, spirits – increases chances of developing breast cancer by about 10% per drink per day. Some of these studies are quite large, with thousands of women surveyed. A closer analysis reveals some serious problems however. To begin with, any time there are dozens of population studies all looking at the same question, we may fa…