Can wine save your life? You might think so, based on headlines touting the benefits or a glass or two of daily vino. Here we take a look at what’s true (and what’s false) about health claims relating to wine.

True or false: Wine can help fight cancer

Answer: True and false

Researchers at the University of Colorado Denver found that a compound found in wine, resveratrol, kills damaged cells in the body. This means that when cancer damages the DNA in cells, the resveratrol kills those cells and prevents the spread of cancer.

The same study that found that wine can fight cancer also pointed out that for some people with a genetic disorder called Fanconi anemia, however, wine increases the chance of head and neck cancer. This is because the same cancer accelerator found in genes of people with Fanconi anemia is similar to the mechanism in alcohol that causes cancer.

The body processes alcohol into a compound called acetyl aldehyde and then further processes it to acetic acid, which is basically harmless and excreted. In people with Fanconi anemia and in the presence of too much alcohol (i.e., in the case of alcoholics) the process is stalled at acetyl alcohol, which is a carcinogen. If the body cannot get rid of the acetyl alcohol, then the possibility of cancer increases.

But there is something about resveratrol, the compound found in the highest amounts in the skin of red grapes, that seems to lower the chances of cancer in even people with Fanconi anemia. Robert Sclafani, PhD, investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the CU School of Medicine, had this to say about why resveratrol might be able to help prevent cancer:

“The more you drink, the more you accumulate DNA damage, and the more chance that one or more cells will accumulate the specific type of DNA damage that can cause cancer. Now, resveratrol takes out the cells with the most damage — the cells that have the highest probability of being able to cause cancer.”

True or false: Red wine can protect heart health

Answer: True

The same compound that helped kill damaged, potentially cancer-causes cells, resveratrol, also helps suppress the body’s inflammatory response. A research team at the Department of Pharmacology of the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (JGU) working in collaboration with researchers of the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena and the University of Vienna looked at the “French paradox” to uncover reasons why, even though they eat more fatty foods, the French have a lower incidence of heart disease than people in the U.S.

Resveratrol inhibits the synthesis of RNA and other inflammation-causing compounds in rich foods to lower the inflammatory response in the body. Many inflammatory diseases such as arthritis are present in people who have cardiovascular disease like heart attack or stroke.

Junior professor Andrea Pautz of the Mainz University Medical Center had this to say about the findings:

“We now know more precisely how resveratrol inhibits the formation of the inflammatory factors that trigger cardiovascular diseases. This is an important finding in view of the fact that more recent research has shown that cardiovascular diseases are significantly promoted by inflammatory processes in the body.”

True or false: Red wine protects everyone’s heart against cardiovascular disease

Answer: False

While it would be nice to think that a glass or two of red wine a day can replace any need for exercise as far as heart health goes, a study presented in August 2014 at European Society of Cardiology Congress by Professor Milos Taborsky from the Czech Republic “…found that moderate wine drinking was only protective in people who exercised. Red and white wine produced the same results.”

Patients with a mild to moderate risk were assigned to drink either white or red wine daily according to moderate levels of wine drinking (defined by the World Health Organization as .2L for women and .3L for men no more than five times a week) and then monitored for a change in their HDL cholesterol levels. They maintained their regular diet and were not instructed to make any other changes. At the end of the year, the only patients who saw an appreciable difference in their HDL number were those who exercised also. Professor Taborsky point out that:

“The only positive and continuous result was in the subgroup of patients who took more exercise, which means regular exercise at least twice a week, plus the wine consumption.”

So if you were thinking of sitting back down with a glass of wine as a protective measure against cardiovascular disease, keep reading.

True or false: Okay, so adding exercise, moderate alcohol consumption makes everyone healthier

Answer: False

For some people, red wine can make the risk of cardiovascular disease go down, but a study from at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg found that just 15% of the population has the specific genotype that makes moderate alcohol consumption beneficial.

A group of 618 Swedes with coronary artery disease and another healthy 3,000 subjects were divided into groups according to their alcohol consumption and then tested for the genotype CETP TaqIB. This genotype had been previously identified as beneficial with regard to moderate alcohol consumption and heart health. What researchers found should have doctors rethinking their prescription of a glass of wine a day for heart health.

Professor Lauren Lissner, who was also a subject in the study had this to say about the findings:

“Moderate drinking alone does not have a strong protective effect. Nor does this particular genotype. But the combination of the two appears to significantly reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

If you are one of the lucky 15%, then a glass of wine may be just what the doctor ordered. Otherwise, moderate alcohol consumption may not actually be beneficial for cardiovascular health. In addition, those on prescription pain medications should always avoid wine or alcohol of any sort, according to their doctor’s orders.

True or false: Red wine makes you smarter

Answer: Partially true

While it won’t help you raise your GRE score or gain entrance to MENSA, red wine can help stave off age-related memory decline. Ashok K. Shetty, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular and cellular medicine and director of neurosciences at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Texas A&M, found that resveratrol affected the hippocampus in a positive way. The hippocampus is the area of the brain related to mood, learning, and memory. They studied the effects of resveratrol on middle-aged mice and found that rats treated with resveratrol had improved spatial learning and memory. These rats saw a neurogenesis (growth of neurons) double that of rats in the control group. Rats not treated with resveratrol did not decline, but they did not improve either.

While Shetty and his team are still studying why this happens, they remain optimistic about the possibilities:

The study provides novel evidence that resveratrol treatment in late middle age can help improve memory and mood function in old age.”

True or false: Red wine helps burn fat

Answer: True

Lest we leave you thinking there is no good news in the world, have faith. Researchers at Oregon State University found that dark-skinned grapes can actually help you burn fat more efficiently. In this case, the compound ellagic acid was found to slow both the growth of existing fat cells and the development of new ones while boosting metabolism in the liver. Not only does this have positive implications for managing obesity, but it can also help with other conditions like fatty liver. Grapes do not necessarily help overweight people lose weight, but they do help slow down accumulation of fat in the body.

Neil Shay, a biochemist and molecular biologist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and part of a study team, doesn’t believe that this is a magic solution to obesity, but had this to say about the potential of these results:

“We are trying to validate the specific contributions of certain foods for health benefits. If you’re out food shopping, and if you know a certain kind of fruit is good for a health condition you have, wouldn’t you want to buy that fruit?”

Alcohol may exacerbate chronic pain, but for chronic pain due to inflammation, at least one of the studies above suggest it might help. Talk to your doctor to see if there are benefits in moderate wine consumption for you and always follow their directions if you are on pain medications that may react negatively to alcohol consumption.

Image by L.C. Nøttaasen via Flickr

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