Wine and Health: A Bio-Psycho-Social Perspective (Wine Folly April 17th, 2020)

There is both hope and hype in the notion that wine is good for your health. From the French Paradox to the Mediterranean Diet and the latest science of aging, let’s get to grips with the debate on wine and health.

If well being is the sum of its parts, understanding the health benefits of wine calls for a holistic perspective.

Are the health benefits of wine negated because of the alcohol?

After a short review of wine’s long medical history and more recent scientific trends, let’s explore wine’s biological and psychosocial benefits.

A Brief History of “Enotherapy”

The relationship between wine and health goes way back. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian tablets from 2,200 BCE document wine as the world’s oldest human-made medicine.

Hippocrates lecturing his students. Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

From ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages, people used wine for everything. It killed bacteria in drinking water, acted as a digestive aid, cleaned wounds, relieved pain, and cured lethargy.

Hippocrates, the “father of clinical and molecular medicine,” championed the health benefits of wine, as did Babylonian kings, Persian doctors and Catholic monastics. The Jewish Talmud plainly states:

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“Wine is the foremost of all medicines: wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary.” – Jewish Talmud

By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, medical research and changing attitudes towards alcohol called this status into question.

Yet since the early 1990s, scientific research on the health benefits of wine has proliferated. Much of this inspired the paradoxically healthy, wine drinking Mediterraneans.

Mediterranean Lessons on Wine and Health

The diet and lifestyle of the Mediterranean have long been renowned as a beacon of health. Based on research by scientist Serge Renaud, a 1991 episode of 60 Minutes put the French Paradox on the map.

Wine in the French Paradox Diet

Renaud observed a paradoxical relationship between the seemingly not-so-healthy diet of his countrymen. High fat, high dairy, and daily wine, despite low rates of coronary heart disease. C’est la vie!

France: that wine-loving, baguette and fromage-eating nation surpasses many countries in average life expectancy. Not without controversy, French vitality has been attributed to the cultural value of drinking 2-3 glasses of wine a day.

The longest living people in France reside in the Gers region of the southwest. Here, high saturated foods like foie gras, sausage, duck fat for cooking, cassoulet, and cheese are standard fare.

Local, sun-kissed reds such as Madiran, Cahors, and Bergerac wash down all this glorious fat.

These wines’ tannins not only scrape fat from the palate and digestive tract but are rich in heart-healthy procyanidins.

The Mediterranean diet:

Wine in the Mediterranean Diet

The next biggest thing since the French Paradox has been the Mediterranean diet.

Recognized for its health-promoting effects, the Mediterranean diet blends moderate consumption of alcohol (mostly red wine) with less meat and a high consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds, and olive oil.

The proof of concept is some of the longest-lived people on earth.

Diet in a strictly biological sense, however, is only part of the story. Along with its cuisine, wine is an intrinsic aspect of the culture, history, and lifestyle of the Mediterranean.

Before exploring the psychosocial benefits of wine further, let’s look at its biological health properties.

Red wine is chock full of polyphenols thanks to these skins.

Biological Health Benefits of Wine

Chemical compounds called polyphenols are the key to wine’s health benefits. As tannins and flavonoids, polyphenols also provide structure, texture, and flavor to wine.

Polyphenols – Key Facts

  • Polyphenols reside in the skins and seeds of grapes.

  • As antioxidants, they scavenge free radicals from the body’s cells, preventing or reducing damage caused by oxidation.

  • The composition and concentration of polyphenols in wine vary by grape variety, vintage, geography, climate, and vinification.

  • The bioavailability of polyphenols varies greatly across grapes and individuals: all that goodness isn’t absorbed equally.

  • Red wine has about 10 times more polyphenols than white (mostly because of a red’s maceration on the skins.)

When it comes to the amount of Polyphenols, not all wines are created equal.

Resveratrol: King of Polyphenols

Resveratrol (rez-ver-a-trol) has emerged as the single most health beneficial polyphenol. The good news for us is that red grapes have some of the highest concentrations in nature, along with olive oil.