Humans’ love affair with wine has lasted for ages. The oldest winery dates back to 4100 B.C.; it was discovered in 2010 by archaeologists working in an ancient Armenian cave. In addition to noticing the immediate relaxation response that wine provides to some, it appears that ancient cultures around the globe, including the Egyptians, were also well-aware of its healing properties. Wine wasn’t reserved for celebration purposes, after all, it was also used in ceremonies as a way to honor the gods. Sharing precious earthly treasures with the gods was used as a means to be—and stay—in their good favor.
Wine continues to be wildly popular in the modern era. From Sonoma to Tuscany, new wineries are popping up all over the world. And wine is BIG business, and consumers are drinking it up. In fact, a 2014 statistic indicates that people indulge in more than six billion gallons of this rich, flavorful spirit every year!
The recent fascination with wine and heart health all began with a popular phenomenon known as the French paradox. This term was coined after two scientists observed that red wine drinkers in certain regions like France had a lower risk of ischemic heart disease (IHD) and mortality despite eating a diet rich in saturated fats, such as cheeses. IHD is characterized by reduced blood flow to your heart and accounts for 10 million deaths each year, making it the number one cause of disability and death worldwide. The French paradox finding launched a series of studies in which researchers aimed to find all the potential health benefits linked to wine consumption.
What the Research Says About Wine and Heart Health
Wine is a unique alcohol. Unlike some other types of alcohol, wine conserves the different organic compounds from the grapes months, years, and even decades after the fermentation process is completed. In the bottle, you can find healthful compounds like polysaccharides, acids, and flavonoids and nonflavonoids. These substances are recognized by scientists worldwide for their powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. So which antioxidant, in particular, is getting all the buzz? You’ve probably heard its name in a news article before—it’s resveratrol.
Resveratrol is a type of polyphenol found in wine. Polyphenols have been shown to protect the lining of your heart’s blood vessels. Resveratrol prevents damage to your blood vessels in two big ways:
- It reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in your blood—this is known as “bad” cholesterol.
- It increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in your blood—this is known as “good” cholesterol. And good cholesterol is really good. Healthy HDL levels can actually reduce your risk of blood clots and safeguard your arteries against damage.
In changing the way your body responds to different types of cholesterol, resveratrol contributes to decreased inflammation and blood clotting in the body (two major markers of heart disease). There’s more to wine than just keeping your cholesterol levels in check, however. A 2015 study suggests that wine may play a role in lowering your blood pressure too. In this study, 60 untreated people with mild hypertension were split into two groups. In one group, participants were given grape-wine extract. In the second group, participants were given grape juice extract. Researchers determined that participants who drank the grape-wine extract had significantly lower blood pressure levels (systolic and diastolic) over a 24-hour period than those who drank only the grape juice extract. This study shows that fermentation is an important part of maximizing the antioxidant properties of grapes.
So what else can this special spirit do for the human body? Quite a bit, actually. Growing evidence suggests that moderate red wine consumption may help ward off the following health conditions:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain cancers, especially carcinomas that attack the basal cells, colon, ovaries, and prostate
- Metabolic syndrome
- Neurological disorders
- Atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to plaque build-up)
In the right amounts, wine (especially red wine) has the capacity to reduce inflammation throughout your body. In doing so, the body is better able to manage insulin sensitivity and blood pressure, which is great news for all those battling health conditions like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
The Most Heart-Healthy Wines for Your Ticker
All wines are not made alike. Some have more heart-healthy properties than others. Here’s a quick look at the best varietals to grab to boost your heart health:
1. Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet is a dry, full-bodied wine with a bold taste. It offers higher antioxidant levels than its sweeter cousins like Port.
In addition to resveratrol, Merlot is also high in a compound called catechins. Catechins are part of the flavonoid family and are considered potent antioxidants. They can also be found in black tea and chocolate. Merlot is a softer and fleshier type of grape that tends to ripen early. Typically fruitier and sweeter than Cabernet, Merlot is known for its mellow taste and low acidity.
3. Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir and its close sister wine, Petite Syrah, contain almost as many antioxidants as Cabernet. Pinot Noir is a fruity, light-to-medium-bodied wine that is known for its highly sensitive grapes; it can only be grown in a few remote corners of the world. Petite Sirah, on the other hand, is characterized by its richer color and texture; it has a slightly peppery profile.
4. White wines
Although not as beneficial to the heart as red wines, studies show that moderate drinking of white wine increases blood plasma levels of resveratrol and boosts nitric oxide production—both of which are important markers of heart health.
Why Moderate Drinking Matters
It’s not all roses and rosé, however. Once a person starts to indulge in high levels of alcohol consumption, the health benefits discussed above all disappear. Alcoholism and binge-drinking are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and cancer.
Before raising a glass to heart health, one important consideration for women is that new studies suggest that moderate alcohol intake may increase your risk of cancer, especially breast cancer. In one study, women who drank one-third to one glass of wine a day were 13 percent more likely to get cancer than those who abstained from alcohol.
So what’s up with the gender difference? Why are women getting the short end of the stick? Well, it all comes down to differences in body composition—women are simply more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men are. Acetaldehyde is the most toxic metabolite in alcohol and is considered a cancer-causing agent. Some researchers speculate that breast tissue may be more susceptible to being damaged by this toxin compared to other organs in the body. Additionally, these toxins are responsible for raising the amount of estrogen in the body, and as you may know, higher estrogen levels are linked to some types of cancer.
In order for a wine to be at all helpful to your health, you must, must, must drink it in moderation. And moderation, unfortunately for us, is not defined by scientists in the same way it might be defined by our friends. Follow these guidelines from the American Heart Association to ensure your wine serving is helpful—not harmful—to your health:
- For Women: One 5-ounce glass of wine per day
- For Men: One to two 5-ounce glasses of wine per day
If wine really isn’t your thing—and it doesn’t have to be—keep in mind that eating foods that contain resveratrol may offer similar heart-healthy benefits. Try getting more of the following foods in your diet to increase your antioxidant levels:
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate (in moderation, of course!)
Loading up on these foods is a great way to ensure your vascular system has the nutrients it needs for optimal health. Resveratrol can help reduce your blood pressure, contributing to more efficient circulation to your brain and heart (your body’s most vital organs).
What Makes Red Wine Different Than Other Alcohols?
Although other types of alcohol may have similar effects on the body (beer, for instance), they do not contain the same levels of protective antioxidants that are found in red wine. Additionally, red wine tends to be a type of alcohol that people consume in a healthier manner. For instance, wine drinkers are far less likely to binge-drink at a bar. More often than not, wine drinkers pair their glass (or glasses for men) with a healthy plate of food and maintain a reasonable diet and exercise regimen in their daily lives. If you’re considering using red wine to protect your ticker, be sure you do it as part of a healthy lifestyle adjustment. As you’ve already learned, wine is only helpful to your health when used in a responsible and moderate manner.
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