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Cheers to Health!

Published: April 17, 2009

Sitting down to eat his lunch at a neurological hospital in Lyon, France, where he was conducting research, Dr. Will Clower could hardly believe what he saw. “There was a cask of red wine,” he recalls, “with free refills for the doctors.”

For him, the scene proved a perfect illustration of the difference in the way the French view wine, compared with most Americans. In France, wine is not seen pimarily as an intoxicant-first and foremost, it’s food. And its moderate but regular consumption may be one of the reasons the French fare better on a number of measures of health, despite their love for foods that we would typically view as unhealthy.

A growing body of evidence suggests that drinking red wine can result in numerous health benefits, says Dr. Joseph Maroon, a professor of neuroscince at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the longtime team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. he details the studies in his new book, The Longevity Factor: How Resveratrol and Red Wine Activate Genes for a Longer and Healthier Life.

Dr. Maroon says scientific studies suggest resveratrol, a substance found in red wine and a number of other foods, can protect against heart disease, cancer, and neurological diseases. It can also help prevent some infections; server as an antiviral; reduce obesity; protect against some forms of diabetes; and slow the effects of aging. He’s among the increasing number of scientists who believe resveratrol to be a primary factor in the French paradox: the puzzling low rate of heart attack deaths in France when compared to the United States, even though the French on average eat many more grams of fat a day-60 percent more cheese, three times more port, and four times more butter.

“I’m a traditional physician, but this is really the future,” says Dr. William Gruss, a Florida cardiologist and internist, and author of A Cardiologist’s Guide to Anti-Aging, Antioxidants & Resveratrol. He sees benefits to the heart, vascular system, brain, nervous system, and skin, as well as the possibility of cancer prevention. What’s more, he adds, consumption of red wine and resveratrol is by and large compatible with most traditional medicine. “If you can find something that will not hurt you and will probably help you, and not interfere with traditional medicine, I’m all for it.”

How It Works

Put simply, resveratrol protects humans because it protects plants. The substance is produced when a plant—in this case, a grapevine—becomes stressed, perhaps by weather, but often by fungus or other disease. Resveratrol collects in the skin of the grape, helping the grape to ward off the stressor.

The reason resveratrol levels are highest in red wine as opposed to white is that the grape skins are left in the juice for a much longer portion of the winemaking process. It’s what makes red wine red and allows more resveratrol to remain in the finished product.

Among reds, resveratrol levels tend to be highest in pinot noir. Why? As actor Paul Giamatti’s character in the wine flick Sideways explained it: “It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early.” With its thin skin, the pinot noir grape must produce more resveratrol to protect itself. So must the grapes produced in higher altitudes, as are many used in the wines from Chile, the Burgundy region of France, and the Finger Lakes region of New York, Dr. Maroon says.

Resveratrol, he explains, appears to activate what are known as the sirtuin genes—sometimes referred to as scarcity or longevity genes. Research in the 1980s found that yeast colonies lived significantly longer if scientists restricted the amount of glucose that they fed on. Subsequent studies suggested that this scarcity caused the sirtuin gene to kick in, resulting in greater longevity. The question then became, is there a way to activate these genes in humans without reducing calorie consumption?

Resveratrol is among a number of substances that have recently been labeled sirtuin-activating compounds. Most of these substances are polyphenols-antioxidants also found in such foods as dark chocolate, green tea, onions, apples, and other fruits and vegetables. “In a bottle of wine there are 1 to 3 milligrams of resveratrol, but also hundreds of other polyphenol compounds that are also very health-providing, and many of which also activate the sirtuin gene,” Dr. Maroon says.

Is It Necessary to Drink Wine

Not surprisingly, given the benefits associated with resveratrol, supplements are starting to flood the market. According to Dr. Maroon, more than 200 supplements with resveratrol are out there, and pharmaceutical companies are searching for ways to mimic or amplify the benefits through drugs.

Supplementation makes it possible to ingest resveratrol at higher levels than can be found naturally. Even wines with the highest levels of resveratrol may deliver only a couple of milligrams a day to the person who drinks two glasses daily. However, if resveratrol is part of the answer to the French paradox, even that small amount may be beneficial.

On the other hand, animal studies of resveratrol supplementation have who don’t drink.”

Beyond the obvious perils of addiction and the risks of auto accidents and violent crime, overindulgence in alcohol is linked to increases in heart disease, liver problems, and certain cancers —virtually the opposite of the positive effects of resveratrol.

In any case, he says red wine is just part of the diet required to make a difference in health.

Dr. Clower, director of Mediterranean Wellness, agrees that what is important is approaching food with the right attitude. “You can eat anything on the planet as long as it’s a food, and you have it in control.” In France, wine is considered a food; therefore, “when you eat food, of course you have wine.”

But that means food in moderation, too. “When they choose food, they choose high-quality and a lower quantity. They taste —they don’t gobble,” Dr. Clower says. Red wine fits that philosophy nicely, because people are more likely to sip rather than guzzle. As for the doctors in the French hospital cafeteria that served red wine, “I never saw anybody going back for seconds.”

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