Few things in this world feel as good as kicking back and enjoying a glass of wine after a long day.
Whether you’re feeling stressed from a hard day at work, or you’re nervous because you have a big presentation coming up tomorrow, wine is a delicious and handy way to calm yourself down and prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
Once in a while, though, a certain (and very popular) question may have crossed your mind: is drinking wine really good or bad for me?
This question lies at the center of a raging debate that’s been going on for decades. On one side, we have wine advocates strongly voicing their belief in the beneficial nature of drinking wine.
On the other side, teetotalers argue that the dangers of drinking wine far outweigh their so-called benefits. Caught in the middle are the fence-sitters, who are confused as to which side they should listen to.
We throw our hat in the ring and attempt to answer that age-old question of whether wine is really good for your health.
The French paradox
No discussion on the health benefits and dangers of drinking wine should start without mentioning the French paradox. The French paradox refers to the observation that in France, there are low rates of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease. This is despite the heavy presence of saturated fats in the French diet.
The French paradox first came into global consciousness in the late 1980s, when French scientist Serge Renaud published a study detailing this observation. His study then became the basis of a documentary broadcasted on American television.
Why is it important to mention the French paradox in any discussion involving the health benefits and dangers of drinking wine? It’s because this phenomenon bolsters the side of wine advocates in the aforementioned debate. Among the theories trying to explain away the French paradox is the French typically enjoy a glass or two of red wine with dinner.
The demonization of wine drinking
The French are hardly the only ones who enjoy wine on a regular basis. In fact, people have used wine for millennia, not just as a drink to savor but also as medicine. Scientists have discovered that Egyptians mixed wine with herbs to treat disease. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, recommended wine as a cure for a wide range of ailments. Wine was even used to purify water during the 19th century.
If wine was lauded for its medicinal properties, then why did wine drinking get a bad reputation at the start of the 20th century? For that, we have the industrial revolution to blame.
According to sociologist and alcohol scholar Dr. David J. Hanson, wine became a hot topic in the 19th century as employers began demanding self-discipline among their workers. To show up for work drunk or nursing a hangover simply wouldn’t do. Additionally, people began blaming alcohol for all the ills that industrialization brought upon society, such as high levels of urban poverty and crime.
This led to the rise of women-led temperance societies and movements around the world. These temperance societies saw alcohol abuse at the root of domestic violence, child neglect, and loss of livelihood among families.
The temperance movement came to a head in the United States with the passing of the Volstead Act in 1920. The Volstead Act effectively banned the manufacture and selling of alcohol in the United States and ushered in the Prohibition era. However, instead of keeping America dry, the Prohibition only led to the establishment of bootlegging, speakeasies, and organized crime.
One could say that the bad reputation that drinking wine and alcohol got before and during the Prohibition contributed to the confusion on the health benefits of wine. So let’s go back to the question: Is drinking wine really beneficial to your health?
Red wine and heart health
So, according a popular theory on the French paradox, cardiovascular disease doesn’t make the French kick the bucket despite a diet rich in saturated fats because they are regular red wine drinkers. What does red wine have to do with it?
As it turns out, red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in the skin of red and purple grapes used in wine production. It also occurs naturally in other foods like blueberries, cranberries, pistachios, and peanuts. In these plants, resveratrol acts as a shield against bacteria and fungi, as well as environmental situations like drought.
In the human body, resveratrol functions as a protective agent as well. It encourages the formation of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps keep blood vessels relaxed, thus arresting the development of atherosclerosis, a condition that hardens the blood vessels.
Resveratrol also promotes increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL is the good cholesterol that prevents plaque formation in the vessels leading to the heart. Raising HDL keeps inflammation away from the heart.
Wine and type-2 diabetes
It seems wine isn’t just good for keeping the heart healthy. A study conducted by a research team at Israel’s Ben Gurion University found that drinking wine, whether red or white, can also benefit people with type-2 diabetes.
The study worked on the premise that drinking wine may be harmful to diabetics because alcohol can elevate blood sugar levels. What the research team found, though, was contrary to that popular belief. The resveratrol in wine didn’t just stabilize blood sugar levels; it lowered them as well.
While the study did spell good news for diabetics, the researchers gave a caveat. Drinking wine is only shows benefits if done in moderation – only one or two glasses a day. Also, wine should not be seen as a substitute for proper treatment of diabetes.
Wine and obesity
Another study on the health benefits of wine suggests that drinking wine can assist with treating obesity. Published in the July 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study claims the resveratrol in red wine may arrest the development of obesity through a number of ways.
One way is by stopping immature fat cells from fully developing. If fat cells can’t mature, then they can’t function as they are meant to and they just die. The other is by blocking glucose molecules from converting into fat. Resveratrol does this by interfering with cell-to-cell communications among fat cells, thus interrupting the conversion process.
Wine and brain health
Yet another study, this time published in the Journals of Gerontology, points out that drinking wine can slow down the brain’s aging too. Once again, it’s resveratrol that does the magic.
According to the study, resveratrol can help with protecting the synaptic connections between the neurons in the brain. By keeping the synapses in good order, signals can keep traveling quickly and smoothly through the brain’s superhighways down to the muscles of the body. It can also boost memory and slow down the development of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The caveats of drinking wine
Of course, not all studies tout the health benefits of wine. Some actually provide evidence that drinking wine may be harmful if you have certain health conditions.
For example, a Danish study published on The BMJ in 2016 found that if you’re a woman trying to get pregnant, your chances of conceiving may go down if you drink more than 14 units of wine or alcohol a week.
Now, if you’re pregnant, you should stay away completely from wine and alcohol according to a study on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders published in Pediatrics.
It bears noting, however, that the issue of light drinking among pregnant women is another debate in itself, with a few experts claiming that imposing a no-alcohol rule for pregnant women is a form of shaming. This debate is cleverly and meticulously captured in the popular parenting book The Informed Parent.
If you have a history of cancer in the family, you should also consider refraining from drinking wine and alcohol. That’s because alcohol contributes to the degeneration of cells, which can lead to cancer. Then again, there are emerging studies showing that purified resveratrol from red wine may help in preventing cancer after all.
Our take on the debate
There are plenty of answers available to the question of whether drinking wine is good for your health. It’s really no wonder why this question generates more confusion than clarity.
So, what’s our take on this debate? Our view on the issue of whether wine is good for your health is simple. If you’re already a wine drinker, you’re in good shape health-wise, and you limit your consumption to no more than two glasses a day, you have little to worry about. Just sit back, keep enjoying your vino, and let the experts argue among themselves.
If you do have a health condition or are pregnant, then the best thing to do is to consult your doctor first. Your doctor will be able to give you better advice as to whether you should uncork that bottle of wine.
If you have a history of alcoholism in your family, though, you should consider avoiding wine altogether. Going teetotaler will keep alcoholism from rearing its ugly head in your life.
If you do decide to drink wine, remember to drink in moderation. All good things become bad if taken to excess. Lastly, nothing beats good, old-fashioned diet, exercise, and stress management to stay healthy. Keep up your very own health routine as you enjoy that glass of wine.