Is Red Wine Really as Healthy as They Say?

For years we’ve been told that a daily glass of wine can be good for our health, particularly heart health. But, then a startling new report came out from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF):

“Drinking just one glass of wine or other alcoholic drink a day increases breast cancer risk,” the AICR press release read.

Then, there’s the other study that came out in 2018 showing that what we consider “safe” levels of “moderate” drinking may not be safe after all. For decades the recommendation has been to limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women — alcohol acts differently in women’s bodies — and two drinks a day for men.

Now, researchers are suggesting those limits may be too high, particularly for men, whom they found fared better when limiting consumption to only one drink a day. The researchers suggested the United States review their guidelines and consider lowering them.

Worse, the scientists failed to find an overall health benefit to moderate drinking. They did not find that moderate drinking was associated with lower risk of heart attacks, for example, which was a surprise since previous studies have shown red wine, in particular, to be beneficial to heart health.

What’s going on, and should we rethink how much wine and alcohol we’re consuming?

How Red Wine Got Its Heart-healthy Reputation

It all started with the so-called “French paradox,” something that researchers started discussing in the early 1980s. Data showed that French people had lower levels of heart disease than American people did, even though they ate a diet higher in saturated fats. When researchers tried to figure out why they discovered French people consumed more wine per capita than many other nations, so they wondered if the wine had heart-protective properties.

Indeed, red wine is rich in healthy nutrients that may benefit heart health. Resveratrol, for instance, is a plant-based compound that is a powerful antioxidant. It has been linked in studies to lowered blood pressure, reduced “bad” cholesterol levels and increased “good” cholesterol levels, brain health, anti-inflammatory action and even to an anticancer action that suggests the compound may be helpful in preventing cancer.

Red wine contains other nutrients too, known as “polyphenols,” that may help protect vascular cells, improving artery health and perhaps reducing the risk of artery narrowing and stiffening.

Even alcohol, in general, has shown a protective effect on heart health. In 2017, for instance, researchers reported that light-to-moderate drinking could reduce the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and all causes. Heavy drinking, on the other hand, was found to increase the risk of mortality significantly.

During the past several decades, a number of studies suggested that light-to-moderate drinking was healthy. In 2016, researchers reported that people who drank wine with meals reported better health, higher self-efficacy and less psychological distress than those who didn’t drink wine with meals.

An earlier 2013 study found that both wine and beer but especially red wine, provided better cardiovascular protection than spirits, although researchers cautioned that the results applied only to moderate drinking.

In yet another study of 250,000 U.S. adults, researchers found that up to seven drinks per week for women and up to 14 drinks per week for men was associated with a more than 30 percent drop in cardiovascular mortality. Consumption above those limits was not protective. There have been many more studies that reached similar conclusions.

More recently, however, we’ve seen conflicting results. As scientists stated in a 2017 study, “there is debate” as to whether light-to-moderate intake of alcoholic beverages, including red wine, are “cardioprotective.” They added that though there is “extensive epidemiological support for this drinking pattern, a consensus has not been reached.”

The Problem with Epidemiologic Studies

At the core of the debate is the fact that most red wine studies have been of the “epidemiologic” type, which means researchers look at large populations of people and find how often diseases occur in these groups.

In the French paradox, for example, researchers found that fewer French people suffered from cardiovascular disease despite a high-fat diet. They also found that French people drank more wine than other populations. However, these observations did not prove cause and effect — that red wine protects against heart disease.

There could be many other factors affecting these outcomes, and some have already been suggested. Maybe wine drinkers eat healthier diets, for instance. In a 2006 study, researchers found just that — people who added wine to their shopping carts were also more likely to add fresh produce and other healthy food items too.

Other studies have suggested that it’s not the wine-producing the healthier diets in the French, but the Mediterranean diet that they tend to eat, which has been associated with improved heart health.

It could also be that wine drinkers are, in general, more well off than those who don’t drink wine, enjoying a higher socioeconomic status and better health care. Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. (now known as Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research), told Global News that moderate wine drinkers are usually wealthier, exercise more and tend to eat healthier diets.

The Healthy Components in Red Wine

We do know that there are many healthy things about red wine. In one study entitled “Red wine: A drink to your heart,” researchers found that red wine “possesses a diverse range of biological actions that may be beneficial in the prevention of CVD [cardiovascular disease].”

The benefits come from the polyphenols in red wine, which are also present in grape juice. The most prominent group is called “flavonoids,” of which resveratrol is one. All of these are powerful antioxidants, meaning they have the ability to help protect the health of cells and tissues important to the cardiovascular system.

These nutrients help increase HDL “good” cholesterol, prevent blood clots and help maintain the health of blood vessels. They also seem to help reduce blood pressure, open up and relax blood vessels, so blood flows through more smoothly and tame inflammation, which we now know plays a vital role in causing atherosclerosis (artery narrowing).

Resveratrol, in particular, has also been linked with other health benefits, including:

  • Preventing immature fat cells from fully maturing
  • Activating proteins that protect the heart from inflammation
  • Reducing the risk of head, neck and colon cancer
  • Reducing the risk of dementia

Quercetin is another of the powerful flavonoids in red wine and grape juice and has been found to help prevent blood clots while helping to dilate blood vessels. It’s also a powerful antioxidant and has shown in studies to help protect heart tissue against injury.

Of course, all these healthy compounds can be found in other foods and beverages that don’t contain alcohol. In fact, many studies have found that these compounds, minus the alcohol, retain their heart-healthy effects. In 2012, researchers studied men with a high risk of cardiovascular disease, giving them de-alcoholized red wine. It helped decrease blood pressure levels just as well as regular red wine.

Consumption of grapes and other fruits, vegetables and tea have also shown an association with lower incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Connection Between Alcohol and Health Problems

Then, we have the other side of the coin, which are the health problems associated with alcohol. We all know that drinking too much causes numerous health issues, but now we’re getting evidence that light-to-moderate drinking may not be so great, either.

In addition to the studies mentioned earlier concerning alcohol and cancer and alcohol daily consumption recommendations, there have been others casting doubt on the idea that a daily drink is good for you.

In 2016, for example, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, reported that even moderate alcohol consumption could “change the structure of the heart in ways that increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.” Moderate drinking seemed to increase the risk of heart rhythm problems, which according to the American Heart Association (AHA), increases the risk for stroke. A 2014 study also found that atrial fibrillation doubled the risk for heart attack.

A 2015 study of more than 88,000 women and 47,000 men found that light-to-moderate intake of alcohol could also slightly increase the risk of cancer. They noted that women, especially, even if they had never smoked, were still more at risk for cancer, mainly breast cancer, even if they consumed only the recommended one alcoholic drink per day.

The situation for women has seemed so serious that the chief medical officer in the United Kingdom, Dame Sally Davies, told women to think twice about the risks of breast cancer before deciding whether to have a glass of wine.

Then, there is a 2017 review of 45 studies that showed that an occasional glass of red wine did not benefit the heart, with lead author Dr. Tim Stockwell telling The Daily Mail that, “The notion that one or two drinks a day is doing us good may just be wishful thinking.”

Why are the studies conflicting? Researchers in this 2017 study argued that past studies suggesting nondrinkers were less healthy than moderate drinkers, this may be due to the fact that as people experience health problems, they tend to stop drinking while people who continue to drink moderately later in life are often healthier and not taking medications that interact with alcohol.

This is just a theory, though, and has not been proven. Then, there’s the evidence that shows that in order to experience the benefits of resveratrol and some of the other nutrients in red wine, we’d have to drink an entire case each day — definitely not a healthy option. That opens up a whole new question of whether light-to-moderate drinking at the recommended levels provides enough nutrients to affect cardiovascular health.

Red wine and all alcoholic drinks can lead to weight gain, which is definitely unhealthy. In 2014, researchers reported that alcohol calories could be a significant contributor to the rise in obesity. In 2017, they found that frequent alcohol consumption and binge drinking in young people warranted consideration in relation to youth obesity prevention.

The Bottom Line: To Drink Wine or Not to Drink Wine?

The bottom line is that no health organization recommends drinking red wine or any other alcoholic drink for health benefits. Instead, they say things like what the AHA says: “If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.”

We know we can get all the good nutrients that are in red wine from other foods and beverages, so then the question comes down to risk. Are there health benefits to consuming red wine? Yes, there can be as long as you take other things into consideration.

Most health experts now recommend that women evaluate their risk of cancer before taking a drink. If other women in your family had or have breast cancer, if you’re 55 or older, if you’re overweight or obese or if you have dense breasts, you may want to take it easy on your intake.

Men should also consider their risk of cancer before choosing how much or whether to drink and may want to rethink that “two-drink-a-day” limit. Those who already have risk factors for heart disease or heart rhythm problems, who have a genetic condition increasing the risk of heart disease or cancer or who tend to drink too much should consider abstaining.

Men and women who are overweight may also want to cut back on the alcohol just to save the calories. Drinking water in place of alcohol could help you drop a few important pounds.

On the other hand, if you’re healthy and have few to no risk factors for cancer or heart disease, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy the occasional glass of red wine or other type of alcoholic beverage. The question of whether you can continue to claim that you’re “doing it for your heart health” — depending on what future studies find — may no longer be true.