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Leisurely sipping a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir is never going to be classified as consuming a health food, but if your goals are a healthy mind and a healthy body, you won't do yourself harm by drinking an occasional glass of red wine.

You won't do yourself harm by drinking an occasional glass of red wine

Leisurely sipping a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir is never going to be classified as consuming a health food, but if your goals are a healthy mind and a healthy body, you won't do yourself harm by drinking an occasional glass of red wine.

Containing a lot less alcohol than hard liquor, red wine has been known for decades to contain a number of healthful plant compounds, including tannins and antioxidants, and notably the antioxidant resveratrol. The resveratrol you buy at the health products store is actually extracted from a plant called knotweed, but the red wine you drink contains a much greater range of different polyphenols beyond just resveratrol. These are all antioxidant compounds that protect the grape from disease.

As connoisseurs of wine know, the more difficult the growing conditions, the more flavorful the wine. Grapes generate antioxidants to protect themselves from sun, insects, molds, and fungi. The more difficult the growing conditions, the greater the production of antioxidants. Wines made from grapes grown in "nearly impossible" growing locations such as upstate New York in the United States and the southern counties of England in the UK tend to have very high levels of antioxidants, with their distinctive tones and finish.

A glass of red wine provides you with as much antioxidant protection as a serving of vegetables--but it's not a good idea to drink five to nine glasses a day.

The super-benefits of red wine

Red wine antioxidants and your risk of colon cancer. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have found a 68 per cent reduction in the risk of developing metastatic tumors in the colon among red wine drinkers.

Red wine antioxidants and your risk of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City report very preliminary findings that giving mice Cabernet Sauvignon greatly reduces the risk of the formation of tangles and plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease in people.

Red wine antioxidants and your heart. Red wine is often touted as practically a treatment for heart disease. An article published in the august science journal Nature reported that drinking red wine prevented the action of a substance called endothelin-1, which converts the cholesterol in the lining of arteries into a harder, more dangerous form.

Red wine also seems to protect n-3 essential fatty acids, the beneficial fatty acids found in olive oil and fish oil, among other healthy sources, from damage by free radicals. When researchers compared blood samples taken from drinkers of whiskey, wine, and beer drawn in the UK, Italy, and Belgium, they found that wine, in particular, seemed to extend the benefits of these omega-3 fatty acids while beer and whiskey did not. Red wine and white wine both offered all the health benefits of wine.

How do these findings fit in with the often reported observation that excessive drinking is associated with heart disease? The latest thinking is that it isn't the kind of alcohol that is linked to heart disease, but the pattern of drinking that is linked to heart disease. Drinking up to one or two drinks a day usually has little or no effect on the basic risk of heart disease, but binge drinking creates an immediate risk of heart attack or arrhythmia. In most of the world, binge drinking is not associated with red wine.

There are also some purported benefits of red wine that haven't been found when put to clinical tests. In type 2 diabetics, any kind of alcohol prevents the liver from releasing sugar and raising blood sugar levels, but neither red wine nor vodka actually improves the underlying metabolic problem, insulin resistance.

How much red wine is enough, and who should be drinking it?

Scientists at Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston followed the health of over 50,000 male health professionals from 1986 to 2006. They found that among men who already had generally healthy lifestyles, that is, they ate regular servings of fruit and vegetables, they took multivitamins, and they ate nuts and soy while avoiding processed meats, the equivalent of 5 to 29 grams of alcohol a day lowered the risk of heart disease.

That's the equivalent at least a glass of red wine a week, but no more than a glass of red wine a day. This study found that beer, whiskey, and other spirits also conferred protection from heart disease--but only if consumption was in the range of one drink a day to one drink a week.

The Iowa Women's Health Study looked at the role of wine in heart disease protection in the case histories of over 34,000 women in the health field. This study found that red wine was one of seven heart-protective foods, along with bran added to foods, apples, pears, strawberries, grapefruit, and chocolate. These foods protected against heart attack in women, but not stroke. The Iowa Women's Health Study did not determine the optimal amount of red wine for heart protection for women, but it probably also is between a glass a day and a glass week.

Should everybody be drinking red wine? Although there are real health benefits in red wine, the simple fact is, alcohol is not always healthy. A car crash can be every bit as fatal as a heart attack. People who have liver disease, kidney failure, and insulin-dependent diabetes need to be very careful about consuming any kind of alcohol, even a relatively healthy form of alcohol such as red wine. And no scientific study has found that drinking more than one drink a day is good for your health.

It's also important to notice that the heart benefits of drinking modest amounts of red wine accrue only to people who already have a healthy lifestyle. Avoiding trans- fats, avoiding cured meats treated with nitrates, and consuming n-3 essential fatty acids are all needed for red wine to do its beneficial work.

If you simply cannot drink alcohol, you can always take resveratrol. Or you can enjoy the health benefits of the alcohol-free wines known as verjuices. These flavorful distillations of grape juice contain no alcohol, but laboratory tests show that they offer the same protection against hardening of the arteries and oxidized cholesterol found in red wine.


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