Is Wine Good For Your Health?

wine health

Our relationship with alcohol over the course of human history has been a conflicted one.

In one moment, we might curse the effects of wine for having a head-ache, feeling tired and dehydrated.

And in another moment, we could be reaching for a glass to enjoy a quiet moment of contemplation or to socially engage with friends.

This dichotomy of alcohol also applies to what scientists believe the effects of alcoholic drinks have on our general health and well being.

Just recently, I was reading about a study conducted by The Kings College, London about the gastroenterological benefits of red wine on the health of gut micro-biota. Micro-biota is increasingly becoming a topic of interest in medical circles.

And another article published in Time Magazine tells us there is no amount of alcohol we can drink which could be considered healthy.

So what should we believe and how should we choose to engage with alcohol?

In the past, beer, wine, spirits, tea and coffee were often considered the only thing people could drink because of the appalling state of available water. Water could kill you much sooner than ten pints of beer.

Today, water quality is still questionable in some locations, but in most developed nations, water is clearly the best option for physical health.  We are very unlikely to select beer or wine over water for the purpose of rehydration today.

Yet wine seems to have held the attention of people in search of a medical cure since the day the grapevine was first cultivated.

In ancient times, people in Egypt, Greece, Persia, Mesopotamia and Rome commonly used wine to restore health and vitality.

Wine was mixed in with ointments to treat skin diseases, and recommended as a treatment for asthma, constipation, dyspepsia as well as epilepsy.

Up until the mid-20th century, brandy, which is a grape spirit, was commonly found in hospital wards and used as a cardiac stimulant in some situations, and as a sedative in others.

Australia’s most famous wine producer, Penfolds, actually made and widely advertised their own ‘Hospital Brandy’ in medical and nursing journals.

The temperance and prohibition movements of the 1870s to 1930s began to impact on the use of brandy or whisky as a prescribed medicine by doctors, and it became less and less a routine practice of the medical fraternity.

Yet scientists continue to pursue wine for health as an area of study and there is still strong evidence to suggest alcohol, and particularly wine can remedy some ails and even extend our life.

For example, in Sardinia, the exceptional number of centenarians, particularly male centenarians, has befuddled demographers.

Men tend to have a shorter lifespan than women but in Sardinia, men and women are equally living well beyond 80 years of age.

Sardinia has 10 times more centenarians than the USA per capita.

There is likely to be a number of reasons for this phenomenon, but consistently the local red wine variety ‘cannonao’, a close relative of grenache, is recognised as a staple element of daily Sardinian life.

Rich in polyphenols, Sardinians regularly consume cannonao with friends at their local bar, and have two to three small glasses per day.

They consume it in moderation and most always in a social setting.

Known as the ‘French Paradox’, the influence of the Mediterranean diet has troubled scientists for sometime and there is a growing field of nutritional studies focused on revealing the mysteries for why it seems to increase human health and longevity, particularly in places like Sardinia.

In the Central European Journal of Medicine, János Fehér, Gabriella Lengyel and Andrea Lugasi define the ‘French Paradox’ as: “as a low incidence of coronary heart disease, while consuming a diet rich in saturated fat.

The polyphenols or antioxidants found in wine are micronutrient compounds naturally found in fruit and vegetables, and they create the tannic characteristics we normally associate with red wine.

Dr Caroline Le Roy from Kings College who proposed, from findings of their study referenced above, that red wine is likely to be good for our gut health, yet she refrained from saying if red wine is resoundingly good for our gut health.

Rather, Dr Le Roy and the British Nutrition Foundation claim more research is needed. And this is the case regarding other studies into the effect of wine on cholesterol and heart health.

No one seems prepared to say plainly what the health benefits of wine could be.

The truth is likely to fit somewhere in between.

The habit of the French, Sardinians and other Mediterranean cultures, is not to binge but to drink moderate amounts of wine, just as they eat moderate amounts of cheese.

Studies also suggest the Mediterranean diet centres on more whole-foods and vegetables, a balanced physical life and adequate time for rest and fasting, compared to an Australian or English approach to food and drink, which in general is much less restrained.

I subscribe to wine as a medicine, but only as a medicine for my intellectual and pleasurable health.

It is important to recognise that wine can be extremely harmful to some. It has wrecked havoc on some family and personal lives which I don’t wish to ignore.

But for others, wine brings a joie de vivre through the stimulation of flavour, appreciation of style or craft and an opportunity for social engagement.

Drinking better quality wine rather than more, and seeking out real food rather than what’s easy and available, could potentially be a healthier approach for all of us?