“The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine” — Thucydides
Patients seem to always want to know about the benefits of red wine.
It doesn’t matter whether one of my patients buys Ripple or Thunderbird at the corner package store or is in training to become the next sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton downtown, they all seem to know that there is a beneficial relationship between imbibing red wine and health.
But is this presumed beneficial relationship real or urban legend? We need to ask what it is that makes wine so special. Is red wine better for one’s health than other alcoholic beverages? What should a teetotaler do?
Before we answer those questions, I thought that I may give you a few kibbles and bits about wine and its history.
Most historians believe that the people in what is now Georgia (the capitol of which is Tbilisi, not Atlanta) were the first to domesticate the wild grape and create wine.
Wine in Georgia is produced in what is believed to be close to ancient production methods. The grapes are harvested by hand and then placed in a large hollowed-out log. And, like the famous episode of the old “I Love Lucy” show where Lucille Ball (wearing faux Italian peasant garb), the grapes are stomped on to release the juices.
In Georgia, the grape juice is fermented for about one year in huge earthenware jars that have been coated with beeswax as a sealant. The jars are buried underground during the fermentation process.
Wine has also been associated with religious rituals since ancient days. The Greek god Dionysus was the god of wine, and he was portrayed often with grape vines in his hair. Wild Bacchanalian festivals occurred while drinking wine. And of course, in the Christian communion, wine is the representation of Jesus’ blood. For those of you who are interested in reading more, Hugh Johnson’s “Vintage: The Story of Wine” is an excellent introduction.
Red wine most recently became identified as a healthy beverage after studies revealed the “French Paradox.” It was discovered that the French had a long lifespan despite eating very rich (and tasty) food high in saturated fats. The researchers then postulated that perhaps the drinking of red wine was the key.
The American Heart Association recently published a review of the health benefits of red wine and alcohol in its journal, Circulation.
There does not appear to be a clear consensus as to whether it is the alcohol itself that confers the benefit or whether wine may be more beneficial because of a certain class of ingredients called polyphenols. Polyphenols can be further subdivided into flavonoids and non-flavonoids (such as resveratrol). These polyphenols are also present in non-fermented Concord grape juice, tea, fruits and assorted vegetables.
Flavonoids seem to play a role in the anti-inflammation and anti-oxidant pathways in our bodies which help to reduce the risk of having a heart attack. These substances also help relax the arteries in our bodies and help reduce our platelets from clumping together.
How much wine or alcohol seems to be beneficial? A standard drink is defined as one five-ounce glass of wine, one twelve-ounce can of beer or approximately one and a half ounces of spirits.
Various studies have suggested that moderate alcohol consumption defined as one to two standard drinks per day for men and no more than one standard drink per day for women confers the most benefit.
Heavier drinking can lead to liver cirrhosis and other problems associated with alcoholism. As the ancient Greeks said, “Everything in moderation.”
What about those of us who don’t drink?
What I tell my patients is to not start! Drinking green tea and Concord grape juice as well as eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables will give you plenty of beneficial polyphenols. Overall outcomes are almost similar.
If you do drink, moderate consumption of red wine may help you reduce your chance of a heart attack.
Alan Jackson, M.D., is a cardiologist and chief medical officer at Roseland Community Hospital and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago. He also is a member of the Sun-Times board of directors....Read more