There are few things I enjoy more than having a nice glass of red wine and cuddling with my dog, Bowie, after a long workday. You may have heard that red wine may be protective against heart disease, and if you’re like me, maybe use this as an excuse to have a glass (or two). This phenomenon is known as the “French Paradox,” which suggests that people who drink less than three alcoholic drinks a day could reduce their risk of dying from heart disease.
But how can alcohol provide health benefits? Well, researchers have focused on trying to understand exactly how moderate alcohol consumption can provide protective effects, particularly on the cardiovascular system.
This so-called French paradox originated in 1981 by French epidemiologists who saw that, despite eating large amounts of fat and smoking cigarettes, French people had lower death rates from heart disease. Studies later found that drinking red wine was the cause of this unique finding. Red wine contains a number of compounds that alter the taste, color and preservation of the wine but that also have cardiovascular benefits. In recent years, most of the red wine phenomenon research has been focused on the compound resveratrol and its health benefits.
Researchers have seen that resveratrol directly and indirectly interacts with a number of targets in the body, many of which contribute to its cardiovascular benefits. Some of these targets include reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, inhibiting oxidation of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and increasing nitric oxide production. All of these effects help improve blood vessel health and reduce overall risk of heart disease. While scientists know many of the benefits of resveratrol, they are still working to fully understand how it works inside the body and how much of the compound is actually good for your health.
Resveratrol was first found in the white hellebore flower and has been since identified in a number of plants and fruits. Particularity, it is found in the skin of grapes—thus the wine benefits! However, the amount of resveratrol in wine is actually very low compared to what’s considered a therapeutic dose. Even pairing wine with other resveratrol-rich foods, such as blueberries, will not be enough to reach that amount, which makes it difficult to test how the compound works in the body. This also means you would have to drink a large amount of wine regularly, and the health risks of drinking too much alcohol outweigh the benefits.
Nonetheless, there is great potential for resveratrol to be a source of cardiovascular protection, and for many people, a nightly drink doesn’t pose a major health risk. So, enjoy that glass of red wine!
Casey Derella is a doctoral candidate in the Laboratory of Integrative Vascular and Exercise Physiology at Augusta University in Georgia. She researches how various diseases alter vascular and skeletal muscle function and ultimately contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease.