We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine. Eduardo Galeano
Plastic Surgeon Richard Baxter’s book ‘Age is Better with Wine’ tells the story of Jeanne Calment who died in her sleep in Arles in the south of France in 1997, at close to 123 years of age.
‘Her birth predated the telephone,’ writes Baxter, ‘and her death was announced via the internet.’ As a young woman she sold art supplies to van Gogh and other impressionists who came to the Provence to catch the light. When she reached the age of 90, she made an agreement with her lawyer to subsidise her stay in her apartment until her death when it would pass to him. He died years before her, and his heirs had to continue paying the rent.
Apparently Calment followed a Mediterranean diet, loved rich foods, chocolate and red wine (not at the same time perhaps). A few years after her death, researchers discovered resveratrol, a compound that Baxter calls the most potent antioxidant of all. The best source, as luck would have it, is red wine because the process of making it extracts large amounts of resveratrol from the grape skins.
David Sinclair and colleagues discovered this miraculous antioxidant, and in 2006 ran some experiments with mice. ‘These were mice that were fed a Western diet,’ Sinclair tells NPR. ‘They were chubby, and they were developing the usual signs of disease that we see in elderly obese people. The mice that had the resveratrol in their diet were still obese, but they were seemingly or relatively immune to the effects of the obesity. So their arteries were clear, their livers were nice and thin. Their bones were stronger. They could run further.’
A Lucky Strike
In an interview with WebMD, Baxter said this about red wine: ‘You will look better, your skin will glow, and you will live five years longer than a teetotaller. There are also good studies that show people who drink red wine on a regular basis have fewer actinic keratoses [precancerous skin lesions]. You will have a significantly lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and all of the things that go along with aging. People assume that drinking would decrease brainpower as you get old, but the most amazing thing is that regular wine drinkers have an 80% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.’
Baxter makes the point that you don’t get the same benefit from white wine or grape juice, so a glass of red or two is clearly the best news for your health. This is not exactly news since red wine has been used as medicine since the pharaohs ruled Egypt. Hippocrates promoted wine as a part of a healthy diet, and advised disinfecting wounds with it.
Alcohol is good for these things as well, of course, and many of us like the relaxing effect it has on us. Alcohol and heart health have been fertile ground for heated debate and censorship, because in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s politically incorrect to say anything positive about drinking.
The Thought Police
Just google alcohol and health and check a few of the health & medical websites that come up, and you’ll see what I mean when you read the tortured prose. The authors simply can’t bring themselves to state in plain language that drinking alcohol in moderation is good for us, that drinking wine is better, and that drinking red wine is better still.
In his book, Richard Baxter tells the story of the famous Framingham study, which has followed some 5000 citizens of that Boston suburb since the late fifties. By the 1980s it was clear that those citizens who drank alcohol on a regular basis were in better health and lived longer than non-drinkers.
When the researchers reported this, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH, the sponsor of the study) told them to remove all references to the fact that drinking alcohol had benefits. It couldn’t be said then, and it still can’t be said today without qualification.
Malcolm Kendrick is a Scottish physician, author and speaker who has made it his life’s work to understand the real causes of heart disease. In a recent post, Kendrick summed up the results of a British Medical Journal study this way:
Increased risk of fatal CVD, and moderate drinking
- Non-drinker = 1.32 (32% increased risk)
- Former drinker = 1.44 (44% increased risk)
Increased risk of all-cause mortality vs. moderate drinking
- Non-drinker = 1.24 (24% increased risk)
- Former drinker = 1.38 (38% increased risk)
Kendrick’s conclusion? ‘I recommended that, from a cardiovascular health point of view, those who do not drink alcohol should start.’
The Gods Must be Crazy
Baxter’s book is a long eulogy to the God Bacchus, and the stylecraze.com website comes up with no less than 24 benefits of red wine consumption. Here’s the list of the magic that red wine apparently weaves:
- Boosts Heart Health (obviously)
- Lowers Cholesterol Levels (you know my view on that subject by now)
- Helps Fight Diabetes (not quite sure how but I’ll find out)
- Fights Cancer (nice idea)
- Prevents Obesity (doubtful)
- Prevents High Blood Pressure And Stroke (so we can stop exercising?)
- Promotes Longevity (by as much as 60%, would you believe?)
- Reduces Stress (For sure)
- Improves Bone Strength (I suspect we’re heading toward the ragged edge)
- Reduces The Risk Of Cataracts
- Promotes Liver Health (in mice anyway)
- May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s (more here and here)
- Boosts Brain Health (more of the same)
- Fights Depression
- Improves Sleep
- Enhances Lung Function
- Prevents Tooth Decay (not in my experience)
- Boosts Levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Strengthens the Immune System
- Helps Fight Parkinson’s Disease
- Slows Down Aging And Makes Skin Glow
- Fights ACNE
- Treats Sunburn
- Promotes Thick Hair (It did in my case)
That’s quite a list, right? You kind of expect to find that red wine, if consumed from ancient goblets during a Pagan feast under a full moon, would restore the Great Barrier Reef to its former glory, don’t you? Or at least make the moon shine more brightly. Still, even if only a fraction of these claims are valid, red wine is a medicine that won’t need much help going down from anyone.
Drinking is Believing
The positive effect of red wine on brain function was seen in French and Italian studies decades ago, with 25% to 80% reductions in risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease for moderate consumption of red wine, compared to people who didn’t drink alcohol. In the 1997 Bordeaux study, ‘moderate’ was defined as 3-4 glasses a day. More Here and Here.
However, a recent UK study showed that even half a glass of wine a day can damage our brains. The researchers said that ‘adults who drink more than this amount are putting themselves at ‘significant risk’ of dementia.’ A huge meta-analysispublished in The Lancet just now produced this verdict from the researchers: ‘There is no safe level of alcohol consumption.’
At the same time, Science Daily wrote: ‘While a couple of glasses of wine can help clear the mind after a busy day, new research shows that it may actually help clean the mind as well. The new study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that low levels of alcohol consumption tamp down inflammation and help the brain clear away toxins, including those associated with Alzheimer’s disease.’
It’s a minefield, and it’s not easy to explain the dramatic variations in the results of different studies. The European studies were observational, whereas the UK study tested the brain function of subjects 5 years apart. Observational studies can’t tease out the other things going on in people’s lives; their environments, their physical fitness and their diets will have played a crucial part in the outcome.
That doesn’t make the results any less valid; it merely supports what we’ve been saying all along: physical and mental health is the result of many factors, and can’t be reduced to a single molecule or a single polyphenol. Sadly the constant media hype about single molecules that cause diseases and magic bullet drugs that cure them has muddled our thinking.
The Best Kinds of Red
That’s the obvious next question, if you believe in the benefits of red wine. Which variety delivers the most resveratrol? Richard Baxter confesses to a fondness for Aussie Shiraz, while others point to different varieties. ‘Malbec grapes have the thickest skin,’ says Dr Liji Thomas, ‘and therefore the highest content of resveratrol.’
Livestrong, the charity set up by cycling legend Lance Armstrong refers to ‘a study published in 1995 which found that Pinot Noir wines had the highest content of resveratrol regardless of country of origin.’ This is a strange claim, given that Pinot Noir is a soft, light red with less colour and tannin extract than most reds.
It comes down to thick skins, and the thickest skins are found in Syrah, Petite Syrah, Shiraz, Mourvedre and Malbec. The way wine is made is more important though: Traditional slow fermentation in open vats with lots of plunging the cap of grape skins under the bubbling liquid for a number of days produces the strongest extract and concentration of resveratrol.
And if you don’t Drink?
According to Livestrong, MayoClinic.com stated that ‘the daily amount of resveratrol necessary for humans to see a health benefit, based on animal studies, can be found in 100 to 1,000 bottles of red wine, so drinking wine is an impractical way of getting resveratrol’s benefits — if any.’
‘The polyphenol content of red wines is in the range of 1500 to 3500 mg/liter,’ says nutrition researcher David Mark. ‘Of this, resveratrol makes up 1 to 5 mg/litre, or less than 1%.’
Another minefield? Clearly some researchers think resveratrol gets more credit than it deserves. Mark says flavonoid polyphenols known as proanthocyanidins (PACs) are most likely the compounds that provide the real benefit, and red grape skins are just one source of these. Other sources are blueberries and cranberries, apples, beans, dark chocolate, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and green tea.
You can also take supplements containing PACs, extracted from pine bark or grape seeds; both are rich sources. The story goes that American Indians on the east coast used pine bark to boost their immunity during the harsh winter month. More recently. Atlantic pine bark extract was patented by a French scientist under the name pycnogenol.
Alternative practitioners attribute many benefits to PACs, some even claim they can cure advanced cancer. The problem with these claims, apart from lack of solid evidence, lies in the poor bioavailability of PACs. As always, my advice is to get most of your share from real foods like blueberries, apples and nuts. That way, you’ll get the vital compounds and the enzymes that make them easier to absorb.