Raise your glass to wine’s three unexpected health benefits

It does more than just raise your spirits

For centuries, poets have rhapsodized about the mental, emotional, and even spiritual benefits of wine.

In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Wine is bottled poetry.”

Homer includes an ode to wine in The Odyssey: “Wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.”

And in Charles Baudelaire’s poem The Soul of Wine, a bottle of wine sings “a song of love and light divine.”

But wine can do much more than just improve your spirit—or spirits, so to speak. Over the years, I’ve reported on studies showing that moderate consumption of wine (particularly red wine) has a host of physical benefits, including:

  • Improving your heart health
  • Lowering your risk of certain cancers
  • Protecting against Type II diabetes
  • Boosting your gut health
  • Reducing your risk of dementia

Now, new research shows wine can also protect your health in three unexpected ways. I’ll tell you all about those findings in just a moment.

First, let’s look at what it is about wine that does a body (and brain, heart, and soul) good…

The compounding effects of grapes

Wine, of course, is made from grapes. And like every other plant, grapes contain natural chemicals to protect themselves from physical harm from pests and diseases. (I’ll tell you more about that plant ability in next month’s newsletter.) But these compounds benefit people, too. Especially when it comes to polyphenols.

Research shows there are thousands of polyphenols in fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, dark chocolate, tea…and yes, wine.

These compounds have been shown in hundreds of studies to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties—which is why they help fight so many plant and human diseases.

The best part? The ancient art and science of winemaking has brought these benefits to a new level…

These disease-fighting chemicals make their way into the bottle through the winemaking process. And you ingest them every time you take a sip.

In fact, red wine has several key polyphenols, including:

Quercetin and anthocyanin. These plant pigments belong to a class of polyphenols called flavonoids. They’re some of the most abundant polyphenols found in foods, and many studies show they have a wide range of health benefits.

Procyanidins. These tannins are also widely found in plants and are in particularly high concentrations in red wine. Research shows procyanidins have heart health benefits.

Ellagic acid. In plants, this polyphenol serves many purposes, from protecting against infections to regulating growth. But it hasn’t been researched extensively in humans just yet. Some studies show that ellagic acid has a role in supporting liver health and regulating fat cells. Other experimental studies in mice have also found it may help regulate blood sugar.

Catechins. Catechins are natural antioxidants that have been shown in some studies to help prevent cell damage in humans. These polyphenols are most commonly found in tea, but they’re also present in red wine—and white wine, at lower doses.

Of course, there’s another popular polyphenol in wine called resveratrol. It’s certainly one of the most widely studied. So, let’s talk about it…

Reservations about resveratrol

In addition to wine, resveratrol is found naturally in other plant foods, such as blueberries, cacao, and peanuts.

Lab studies on resveratrol have found protective benefits against many human health risks. For instance, it appears to inhibit cancer cell growth as well as support the heart by preventing blood vessel damage and promoting healthy cholesterol levels.

Not to mention, some research shows resveratrol helps regulate insulin, protecting against Type II diabetes. It may also help slow the progression of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

But, as always, dose is important. The doses used in resveratrol research don’t always match what’s found in the moderate servings of wine that confer the most health benefits.

Some studies have found that the actual amounts of resveratrol in just one or a few glasses of wine may offer some health benefits. But many other studies show you’d need to drink much more wine per day than can possibly be recommended (or that would even be possible to consume) to gain these benefits.

Meanwhile, studies show that the ellagic acid, procyanidins, and catechins in a glass or two of wine actually do provide health benefits—unlike the same amount of resveratrol.

In other words, while there may be some benefit in the doses of resveratrol you get from moderate wine consumption, there’s a lot more to the story…as usual. As with any plant-based food or beverage, trying to single out one “active ingredient” is not going to explain all of wine’s impacts on health.

Other healthy aspects of wine

The healthy components of wine have a lot do with what kind of grape is used, the thickness of the grape skin, where the grapes are grown, and the winemaking process.

Wines that are darker in color and higher in tannins naturally have higher levels of beneficial compounds. (That’s because these compounds are concentrated in the skin.)

Then, where and how the grapes are grown will influence “doses” of beneficial compounds in the final product. (Different climates and growing conditions affect the amounts of polyphenol compounds that a plant needs to produce to protect itself.)

Finally, the winemaking process is important. What’s different about wine, compared to other sources of polyphenols, is that it’s fermented to produce alcohol. This fermentation has a positive effect on polyphenols.

Plus, alcohol itself appears to have its own health benefits when consumed in moderation (like reducing stress, for example).

So, the best benefits of wine come from consuming it, in its whole form, as part of a healthy, balanced diet. That way, you ingest all the beneficial compounds it has to offer. (Like with most things in life, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.)

This leads me to the new studies on red wine that I mentioned earlier—and those three unexpected health benefits.

Because even though the researchers attempted to classify wine’s effects by its specific “parts,” in the end, it just highlights the complexities of wine— and everything else that comes from Nature. Let’s take a closer look…

Promoting healthy teeth and gums

The first study has to do with red wine’s effects on oral health. I’ve been tracking this surprising aspect of wine since I read a study back in 2014 that found red wine can destroy various types of oral bacteria that can cause plaque on your teeth.1

Of course, the alcohol in wine has antimicrobial properties. But these researchers dipped biofilms of oral bacteria in both regular red wine (pinot noir) and non-alcoholic red wine.

They found that both versions killed the bacteria more effectively than a solution of water and alcohol. So—it’s not the alcohol in wine that zapped the plaque-building bacteria.

The researchers thought it might be the polyphenols, but concluded more studies were needed.

Well, fast forward to just a few months ago, when another group of researchers attempted to discover whether the resveratrol and quercetin in wine could alleviate apical periodontitis—inflammation of the gum around a tooth—in rats.2

These researchers divided rats into four groups. One group was given red wine; the second group was given a solution of resveratrol and quercetin in alcohol; and the third group was given the amount of alcohol found in wine. The fourth group served as the control group.

After 15 days, the researchers discovered that both the red wine and the resveratrol and quercetin mixture reduced the inflammation associated with periodontitis. Both also helped limit destruction of the jawbone, when compared to the control or alcohol-only groups.

Here again, it’s likely not the alcohol that helps promote oral health, but rather the plant compounds in the grapes.

Fighting COVID-19 infections

Another new study looked at how alcohol helps prevent infection—specifically, COVID-19 infections.

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 500,000 participants in the U.K. Biobank study.3 They found that those who drank red wine had a 10 to 17 percent lower chance of coming down with COVID-19 compared to non-drinkers.

And, interestingly, this finding was consistent whether the person drank as little as one glass of red wine a week or more than five glasses.

Meanwhile, people who drank five or fewer glasses of white wine per week had a seven to eight percent reduced risk of COVID—but if they drank more, that protective effect disappeared.

The researchers also found that people who drank five or more hard alcoholic drinks weekly had an increased risk of COVID infection compared to non-drinkers. And those who drank any amount of beer or cider had a seven to 28 percent higher risk of getting COVID than non-drinkers.

So, what is it about wine that appears to be so beneficial?

Once again, the researchers thought it may have something to do with its polyphenols…

They believe those polyphenols may help protect against COVID by:

  • Decreasing blood pressure
  • Protecting the body’s cells from oxidation by free radicals
  • Helping improve function of the circulatory system
  • Activating proteins that prevent cell death.

Guarding against Parkinson’s

The final new study looked specifically at how the polyphenols in wine—and other beverages and foods—affected the lifespans of people with Parkinson’s disease.4

The researchers analyzed how polyphenol flavonoids, such as anthocyanin, affected more than 1,200 men and women who lived with Parkinson’s for an average of 33 years.

They found that the people who ate three or four servings per week of foods or beverages high in flavonoids were healthier and lived longer, compared to the people who didn’t eat as much. (Note that this is servings per week, while usual recommendations are to get at least three or four servings per day. So, in this study, a little bit went a long way.)

The researchers also found that the people who consumed more anthocyanin had a whopping 66 percent greater survival rate than those who consumed the least amounts. This suggests that the anthocyanin content in red wine can be highly protective for people with Parkinson’s.

The researchers noted that a prior study found that high flavonoid items could prevent against the future risk of Parkinson’s, too—so these compounds might pull double duty.

But despite these findings, the researchers held off recommending moderate red wine consumption for those who don’t drink alcohol.

Specifically, there was some concern that even moderate consumption may be unsafe for those with Parkinson’s who are unsteady on their feet and at risk of falls and injuries.

Of course, there appears to be a widespread bias against any alcohol consumption in many circles of medicine and public health (as I often report). So the researchers’ tepid response to red wine isn’t a surprise…although it certainly is a pity when you consider how much evidence there is about the health benefits of this beverage in moderation.

How much should you drink?

It’s important to realize that any food or drink can be harmful in excess. And that’s certainly true when it comes to red wine.

As a former medical examiner, I’m all too aware of how often excess alcohol consumption can pose a real health problem (and dangers) for some people.

That’s why I always recommend moderate drinking as part of a balanced diet. Most studies show that one or two 5-ounce glasses of red wine per day confers the most mental, emotional, and physical benefits.

If you indulge further…and further…you could be in danger of poor judgement, confusion, stupor, and even coma and death. And that’s the very definition of unhealthy spirits!

So, I suggest raising a glass or two of red wine tonight at dinner and toasting your health…for years to come!

Of course, as a reader of mine, you already know that I stand behind other alcoholic beverages as well, in moderation. So if red wine isn’t necessarily your drink of choice, you can still enjoy the health benefits of beer and spirits (see the November 2018 newsletter for more details).

Sources: 

1“Red Wine and Oenological Extracts Display Antimicrobial Effects in an Oral Bacteria Biofilm Model.” J. Agric. Food Chem. 2014, 62, 20, 4731–4737. 

2“Effect of red wine or its polyphenols on induced apical periodontitis in rats.” Int Endod J. 2021 Dec;54(12):2276-2289. 

3“COVID-19 Risk Appears to Vary Across Different Alcoholic Beverages. Front Nutr.” 2022 Jan 3;8:772700. 

4“Intake of Flavonoids and Flavonoid-Rich Foods, and Mortality Risk Among Individuals With Parkinson Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study.” Neurology. 2022 Jan 26:10.1212/WNL.0000000000013275.