This question spurs great conversation at cocktail parties, backyard cookouts and even tailgates. Could it possibly be the truth that red wine (or alcohol in general) adds to heart health? If you’re like most of us, you crave a positive answer to this question. Read on; you’ll be pleased with our conclusion.
Wine as medicine throughout the ages
We doctors have been interested in wine for a long time. In fact, physicians’ interest in wine predates even our love affair with golf. The belief that wine possesses medicinal properties has endured for centuries. In ancient Egypt, wine was used to treat ear infections. A pharmacopeia from the year 2200 BCE lists wine as a medicine. And Hippocrates (450-370 BCE), the “Father of Medicine,” used wine as a key component in many of his remedies, prescribing it as a treatment for fevers, a diuretic, an antiseptic and a general aid for convalescence. Displaying his customary wisdom, Hippocrates advised moderation, writing, “Wine is fit for man in a wonderful way provided that it is taken with good sense.”
The French paradox: Modern doctors agree with Hippocrates
In 1979, an English researcher named St. Leger published an influential scientific paper suggesting a correlation between a lower rate of developing coronary heart disease and wine consumption. He discovered that France, a country renowned for making fine wine and drinking plenty of it, had the lowest coronary heart disease mortality of any developed country. Despite a high-fat diet rich in heavy sauces, crepes, and croissants, French people died from coronary heart disease at a rate less than one-third that of Americans. St. Leger suggested that regular wine consumption was the key factor protecting the French from developing heart disease.
How much should you drink?
Other scientists and doctors soon jumped on the bandwagon, undertaking large-scale observational studies to investigate St. Leger’s findings. For the most part, these new studies bore out his results. People who had one to two drinks per day tended to live longer and have fewer heart problems than those who had more or less. Study after study confirmed the conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with better heart health and longer life.
Red wine, white wine, beer or spirits?
Red wine tends to get the most attention when it comes to heart health. Noting that red wine contains a variety of antioxidants derived from grape skins, scientists have attributed “special” medicinal properties to red wine. In laboratory experiments, resveratrol and other red wine antioxidants do exhibit potentially beneficial properties. But the real importance of these chemicals is a matter of debate. The truth is that the “magic” ingredient in red wine—and in white wine, beer and spirits—is the alcohol. The best evidence suggests that cardiac benefits associated with wine stem from alcohol.
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