Red wine has been consumed for centuries, dating all the way back to 7,000 BC in China and 4,500 BC in Greece, and when Rome conquered Greece it became embedded into Roman culture.(1) Not surprisingly, it became a huge part of the Southern European lifestyle in countries along the mediterranean, whom still typically consume wine with meals. More recently, in the 1980s the term "French Paradox" attempted to explain why the French had the lowest incidences of cardiovascular disease despite a high-fat diet (see Nina's Teicholz expert podcast for the full story) and regular intake of antioxidant-rich red wine was thought to be a factor.(2)
Most people (and doctors too) believe red wine to be superior for overall health, compared to beer and alcohol. While this isn't necessarily the case (more on this in a future post), the research shows red wine may be beneficial for supporting better brain function, cardiovascular health, inflammation control, blood sugar balance, and cancer protection. Not bad for a little grape!
What gives red wine its health promoting properties? A group of phytonutrients called polyphenols that are made up of over 8,000 compounds, and in red wine found in the dark red skins of the berries. Polyphenols can be roughly divided into flavonoids and non-flavonoids. Flavonoids act as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. They come in many flavours; flavones (i.e. apigenin in parsley), flavonones (i.e. naringenin in citrus fruits), isoflavones (i.e. genistein in soy), flavonols (i.e. quercetin in onions), flavanols (i.e. catechizes in green and white tea), and anthocyanins, a key flavonoid found in red wine. The key non-flavonoid in red wine is resveratrol, by far the most well-know red wine nutrient.
Let's take a closer look at these phytochemicals.
Polyphenols in Red Wine
The resveratrol content of red wine is a key indicator of the potency of its health benefits. Resveratrol, a non-flavonoid phytochemical classified as a stilbenoid, is a powerful antioxidant that helps to quench the inflammatory fires sparking up inside the body. You may be experiencing high levels of antioxidant stress if you have high belly-fat, achy joints, struggle with high blood sugar levels or a chronic condition. The wine with the highest amount of resveratrol will likely pack the biggest antioxidant punch. What grape has the most resveratrol? Pinot Noir. It's head and shoulders above the rest, consistently showing the greatest concentrations of resveratrol compared to other grape varieties, regardless of where they come from. Pair a nice Pinot Noir with your weekend dinner and you can reap the health benefits.
What if you you’re not a fan of the lighter bodied Pinots? It’s not just resveratrol that makes red wines beneficial for your overall health. Another polyphenol compound called anthocyanin gives wine its deep red color. The darker and more full-bodied the red wine, the greater the content of anthocyanin. What type of grapes have the most anthocyanin? Experts found that Cabernet varieties have the greatest concentrations of health promoting anthocyanin, so if Pinot Noir’s are too light for you, try pairing a Cabernet Sauvignon to boost your intake of these health promoting polyphenols.
Health Benefits of Red Wine
By far, wine is considered to be the healthiest form of alcohol. Let's review the science behind the benefits of this ancestral beverage.
#1 High in Antioxidants
The polyphenols found in red wine are very high in antioxidants, which fight off oxidative stress in the body, due to high sugar/processed food diets, pollution, smoking, weight gain, chronic disease, etc. In the matter of weeks, wine can increase plasma levels of antioxidants significantly, as well all lowering levels of inflammatory biomarkers.(3,4)
#2 Supports Healthy Gut Microbiota
Polyphenols have been shown to increase beneficial strains of "gut warriors" like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, keystone species found in healthy individuals that promote superior health and performance.(5) Traditionally fermented red wine may also be an effective strategy for supporting increased bacteroides levels in the gut, thought to be a reliable biomarker of a healthy gut microbiome.(6)
#3 Fights Cardiovascular Disease
Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD) as its known in the medical community, is the world's number one killer accounting for over 33% of deaths worldwide.(7) Studies show red wine increases beneficial HDL cholesterol and lower harmful oxidized "bad" LDL cholesterol.(8,9) Many practitioners believe red wine lowers blood pressure but the research is mixed.
#4 Boost Brain Health & Prevents Dementia
Resveratrol has brain protecting benefits, supporting the energy producing mitochondria of the brain that are crucial to health, longevity and fighting off dementia.(10) Prospective studies, watching groups of people over a long period of time, show that regular red wine drinkers have lower risks of dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.(11,12,13)
Common Additives & Contaminants To Consider
Unfortunately, the modern processing and commercialization of wine has led to some adulteration of good processing practices. Here are a few things to watch out for when you purchase your next bottle;
Sulfites - Sulphur dioxide is typically added to most wines as a preservative to increase shelf-life. White wines often have more sulphites than red, and organic wines contain about 3x-less sulphites than standard wines, important to consider if you're sensitive to sulphites.
Mega Purple - If you get a red stain on your teeth from your red wine, make sure it's the last time you drink it. Mega Purple is a grape juice concentrate many producers add to produce the desired colour.
Histamines - Certain foods like wine, cheese, processed meats, eggs and fermented foods contain high levels of histamines. Some people may struggle with histamine intolerance, and experience increased sneezing, headaches, diarrhea and itchy skin when consuming these foods.
Sugar - Certain winemakers will add more sugar to increase the palatability, yet it doesn't tell you on the bottle.
Phthalates - Typically found in plastics, a recent study shockingly found that over half of the wines in France tested positive for phthalates, a potent endocrine disruptor.(14)
Does Red Wine Make You Healthier?
So, does red wine make you healthier? Not quite. A recent study at John Hopkins University School of Medicine investigated over 700 Italians, aged 65 or older. Researchers examined their urine samples and followed up 9 years later and found no association between resveratrol levels and cardiovascular disease, cancer or all-cause mortality.(15) Furthermore, you can also obtain these healthy polyphenols from eating grapes and other fruits and veggies with darker skins.
However, if you enjoy the occasional (or regular) glass of red wine... fear not. Many of my clients rest easier at night knowing studies show that people who abstain from alcohol completely do not live any longer than those who drink alcohol in moderation.(16) (Insert collective sigh of relief... phew!) At this point, the research suggests its neutral.
How Much Red Wine Should You Drink? (If At All)
If you do enjoy red wine, it is a rich source of antioxidants and can support healthy gut bacteria (in moderation). My preference is polyphenol-rich Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon grape varieties, or any wines from trusted winemakers using traditional winemaking methods. Remember, always consume wine in moderation - 1-2 drinks for men and women per night - and include multiple alcohol-free nights in the week as well.
Enjoy your next glass of vino and all those antioxidants! Cheers, Santé, Salud.
Dr. Marc Bubbs ND, CISSN, CSCS