Is wine good for you? Here’s what the experts say

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  • Is wine good for you? Everyone wants to think that the thing they enjoy is actually good for them too.  

    But famously, alcohol tends not to make the list. It’s just one of the many reasons why so many people give up drinking altogether. Whether it’s the number of calories in every pint, the unpreventable hangover that often follows a heavy night of drinking, or the increased risk of cancer that come with long-term binge drinking, our favourite alcoholic beverages have been proven time and time again to be bad for us.

    So why has red wine been slowly etched onto the list of alcoholic drinks with health benefits – and are any of these claims actually true? To find out the truth, we’ve put the most common “health” claims for red wine to experts Claire Murphy, dietician and registered nutritionist at Last Verdict, and Leyla Moudden, naturopath at Enzymedica UK.

    Is wine actually good for you?

    Most of us know that wine is not actually good for us. As Claire Murphy explains, “High levels of ethanol is bad for the immune system and will not stimulate immunity and virus resistance. Its consumption is likely to increase the health risks of a person in the long run.”

    And while there are claims which have some merit, they’re not actually applicable to real life. Sure, wine red has antioxidants, but due to the final amount actually in the bottle, the benefits don’t really add up.

    Naturally though, as when it comes to anything to do with diet, it’s everything in moderation. As Claire says, “Will you live a long and healthy life without red wine if you drink and eat healthily? Yes. Will red wine cause massive problems if you moderately drink it while living a healthy lifestyle? No.”

    Can drinking wine help to slow down the ageing process?

    The claim: This is one of the most common “health benefits” of wine. Studies supposedly “proving” the anti-ageing benefits of alcohol have been coming out for years. But the study conducted by the University of Iowa in 2015 is one of the most recent. This one claims research shows those who drank moderately aged more healthily than those who drank excessively – or were even completely sober.

    What our expert says:  While it’s clear where this claim has come from, it’s unfortunately not entirely true.

    “Red wine is an easily accessible source of a compound called resveratrol, which has been studied extensively for its many health benefits – one of which includes anti-ageing effects,” says Leyla. “It activates a set of enzymes in the body called sirtuins. These enzymes protect and improve the quality of cells as they regenerate. Resveratrol is in many plants, but it is particularly abundant in red grapes. Of all red grapes, the red grapes of the Pinot Noir France have the highest level of resveratrol content. This is how the red wine and health relationship came to be linked.

    Woman drinking red wine from a glass

    Credit: Getty

    But while we can appreciate the amazing benefits of resveratrol, we can’t forget that alcohol has the opposite effect. “Alcohol is very ageing and is particularly detrimental to the skin and detoxification organs. Any benefits of red wine due to the high resveratrol content have to balance with the ageing effects of the alcohol. Red wine is also a potent source of compounds called phenols. These are compounds that some people can have a sensitivity reaction to without realising it. For those that have headaches or dire hangovers after small amounts of red wine, there may be a phenol intolerance. This form of inflammation is ageing to the body.”

    So what the real secret to slowing down ageing if it’s not red wine? Leyla explains that human cells are a little like photographs. They are full of all the detail we need to create every part of our body. As we age, our cells regenerate – which is a bit like a photocopied photograph.

    “If we took the photocopied image, and copied it again – we would lose even more detail,” she says. “And again, the same is the case with human cells, each time they regenerate, they lose more and more detail. Healthy ageing is when our cells have an outstanding copier function that preserves as much detail of the original cell as possible.” 

    So to support this “copier function”, Leyla says, we need “an abundance of nutrients, good detoxification systems and reduced burden on the body, especially digestive burden which requires a great deal of energy and detoxification to process. This is why digestion becomes more sensitive and tiring as we age. Couple these elements with good sleep and good rest, and you have the recipe for healthy ageing.”

    Can a glass of wine before bed really help you lose weight?

    The claim: This is another popular “health benefit” of red wine in particular, with research from Harvard University widely cited as supporting the claim. The study tracked the weight of 20,000 women over a period of time to investigate trends in obesity. They discovered many correlations. One of them was that women who drank red wine were 70% less likely to be obese than those who didn’t. Other studies have suggested that drinking late at night can also help satiate food cravings.

    What our expert says:  It’s easy to see where this thought process has come from, Leyla says, but it’s unfortunately probably not true.

    There are two studies that have contributed to this belief,” she explains. “The first study was conducted on mice and relates to the different types of fat tissue in the human body. The human body can store what researchers call brown, beige or white fat. The body creates brown fat for a functional reason, such as to keep the body warm during winter. Beige fat is a baby white fat cell. It will still generate energy, but it will not be as efficient or useful as brown fat. White fat is fat that has little useful purpose. It’s most commonly underneath the skin as stomach fat.

    “In a study on mice, the researchers gave mice resveratrol. This is a compound in red grapes and so is also in red wine. In the study, mice consuming resveratrol had white cells turn to beige.”

    Friends having wine with dinner together

    Credit: Getty

    This is where the initial thinking that wine can help transform some fats comes from. However, Leyla says, “It’s worth noting that studies on mice are very controlled. They cannot take into consideration all of the elements of human life that contribute to weight gain and loss. This includes things such as stress, eating habits, lifestyle and sleep. What we can conclude is that resveratrol is a highly beneficial compound, that affects the type of fat that mice store.” 

    The second study, she says, was the one conducted at Harvard. “They found many correlations, and one of them was that women who drank red wine were 70% less likely to be obese than those who didn’t. This was an observation rather than a cause-and-effect relationship, as it would be completely inaccurate to say that there are no obese red wine drinkers for example.” 

    But there is some good news. “For some people, red wine is their only source of resveratrol. Having a small amount of red wine in the diet will give the body an amount of resveratrol, which can be beneficial in creating a healthy diet. Grapes, nuts and red berries also contain resveratrol. Non-alcoholic red wine will confer many more health benefits than the alcohol containing counterparts.” 

    As for nipping food cravings in the bud, sensible thought will tell you that having a late night snack that’s rich in protein (which naturally fills you up) is a better idea for weight loss than two glasses of red wine. On average, two 125ml glasses of red wine come in at 212 calories. While a banana with 15g of peanut butter is only about 188 calories and is sure to be more filling, plus has that sugary hit we often want late in the evening.

    Can red wine help to reduce the chances of diabetes or a stroke?

    The claim: This same compound, resveratrol, is listed as the main health benefit of red wine. Some studies suggest that it produces chemical changes that can help reduce the risk of many dangerous medical conditions, including a stroke. 

    One study suggests this is because resveratrol decreases inflammation, which contributes to brain injury caused by a stroke. Inflammation tends to create congestion in the blood vessels and in turn, increases the chances of cerebrovascular disease, heart disease, and hemorrhagic stroke. 

    What the expert says: While this isn’t completely without merit, Claire says, “moderate and healthy consumption of alcohol is a balancing act.”

    “You’ll see the same websites and newspapers batting around facts and figures claiming that red wine is both bad AND good for you,” she says.  The truth is, it’s all about the levels of alcohol you consume – with the optimal level being around 1 to 2 glasses per day (though if you’re worried about drinking too much, or the negative effects of alcohol, then it’s important to know what all its health benefits can be found in other, less complicated foods).

    “Regular moderate drinking can lessen your changes of strokes and diabetes, as drinks such as red wine are jampacked full of antitoxins such as polyphenols, which provides blood vessels in your body with more protection.” 

    Can red wine actually help to reduce memory loss?

    The claim: Ever wondered where you put your keys or wallet? Sick of forgetting things? Well, researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine found that resveratrol, found in red grapes, may help prevent age-related memory decline.

    What our expert says:  There’s more truth to this one than you might think. “Resveratrol definitely can reduce memory loss,” our expert says. “Resveratrol protects cells and our brain is made of cells, so any compound that protects cells will improve all function including brain.  As red wine is a source of resveratrol, it can provide an amount of resveratrol in the diet, particularly if the person is not eating grapes and berries.

    But she adds, “the benefits must be balanced with the alcohol which is damaging.” 

    Can wine help to reduce the appearance of wrinkles?

    The myth: Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant, and according to some research, it can help to fight the signs of ageing and reduce wrinkles.

    What our expert says: Extremely unlikely.

    “A good source of information on this are longevity studies. There are numerous studies seeking to understand the link between lifestyle, diet and healthy ageing. In these studies, healthy ageing is not so much about wrinkles but by how much energy and functioning you retain. One of the side effects of that is healthy skin.

    “The youngest looking populations for their age ranges tend to be the Japanese and the African Caribbean cultures. These are two cultures that don’t drink red wine as part of their culture. The fastest ageing populations tend to be in Australia. This is where the intense sun exposure is contributing to faster ageing of the skin. 

    “In studies on long life, researchers have repeatedly concluded that the secret to living past the age of 100 is having strong community bonds. Along with low levels of loneliness and the feeling that one is contributing to society. This is similar to having a purpose in life. There were few trends in diet and lifestyle, and the results did not change from alcohol drinking or even smoking communities.”

    So overall, it’s a strong no. Red wine that contains alcohol will not reduce the appearance of dark circles or wrinkles unfortunately. And as we’ve already noted, alcohol is very well documented for its ageing effect on the skin.

    Can wine help to slow down tooth decay?

    The claim: A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that red wine can kill dangerous bacteria in your mouth that could cause dental problems, including cavities.

    Woman sitting on balcony

    Credit: Getty

    What our expert says:  Unfortunately, all evidence points to the conclusion that this is just not true.

    It’s definitely highly unlikely, Leyla says. “This belief came from a study that was conducted on the effect of de-alcoholised red wine on a bacteria known for causing tooth decay. The researchers put the bacteria and the wine together. Then they observed that de-alcoholised red wine will kill the bacteria responsible for tooth decay in a petri dish, in laboratory settings.

    “The effects and the way the effects were observed are very different from real life settings. So it’s quite a leap in conclusion to take the activity in a petri dish and conclude that drinking red wine slows down tooth decay. It would be like concluding that because bleach kills tooth decaying bacteria in a petri dish, drinking bleach will prevent tooth decay which is clearly incorrect.” 

    However, it is the case that alcohol will kill bacteria. So, Leyla says, it may be that the alcohol content of red wine may have a moderate antibacterial effect.

    “But due to the acid enamel erosion and tooth staining effects of red wine, I would not recommend this as a tooth decay preventing habit.” 

    Can wine really help prevent various life-shortening diseases?

    The claim: Wine reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. As researchers say, it”dilates arteries and increases blood flow, thus lowering the risk of clots.”

    Resveratrol, found in red grapes, kills the damaged cells that can lead to cancer, research has found. Another study, published in 2014 in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Food & Function, found that the more polyphenols, particularly resveratrol in red wine, the more it protects against colon cancer.

    What our expert says: It’s important to be careful about this claim, as it has to be understood in context.

    “Any compound that protects cells, will contribute toward chronic disease prevention,” Naturopath Leyla says. “One way of protecting cells is to consume compounds that protect cells, and resveratrol is one of those protective compounds. Another way of protecting cells is to reduce their workload, and the greatest burden on the body is the process of digestion which is why enhancing digestion by taking a digestive enzyme supplement, such as Digest Gold from Enzymedica, is a great option as digestive enzymes increase the availability of those cell protective nutrients. They reduce how much energy we need to digest, and even handle intolerances that cause inflammation and promote healthy ageing, much more effectively than red wine. 

    She adds, “Some cellular protective compounds are more potent and effective than others. Resveratrol is one of the superstars of cell protection. Red wine is a very efficient way of having a very high amount of resveratrol. We can conclude that with a healthy diet, a small glass of red wine may have a health enhancing effect. More than a small glass three times per week and we fall into the realm of too much alcohol. This has the opposite effect.” 

    Can you prevent red wine from staining your teeth?

    The claim: Everyone knows that red wine can stain your teeth. So naturally, there are plenty of ‘cures’ and ‘hacks’ on the internet to prevent and get rid of wine-stained teeth.

    The most popular ones include swapping red wine for white wine, sucking on a lime and brushing with baking soda. Others suggest using a straw and eating particular foods when drinking to “cover” your teeth in a coating.

    What our expert says:  There’s not getting away from it. Unless you’re willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent wine from staining your teeth, it’s inevitable.

    “Red wine contains two major elements that contribute to tooth staining,” Leyla says. “The first is acid, which erodes the protective enamel of the teeth. This renders it more vulnerable to being stained by anything at all. The second element is a colour pigment called chromogen, which is a very intense hue of red. These two elements combined make red wine an excellent candidate for discolouring teeth.”

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