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Is Wine Really Healthy? The Debate Continues

Wine has been caught in a huge health debate on whether or not it's actually healthy for you. It seems every few years, doctors are changing their minds and saying you should (or shouldn't) be consuming this drink.

An analysis conducted in July 2014 looked at 380,395 men and women and found an increased risk of death over an average 13-year period among heavy drinkers compared to those who drank moderately.

However, a different study of 128,934 Californians found that frequent wine drinking was linked to a lower death risk over a 20-year period.

So, which is it: should or shouldn't you be drinking wine?

Listen in as Dr. Mike discusses the findings of these two studies and if you should be drinking wine or if it's best left alone.

RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: May 27, 2015

Anti-aging and disease prevention radio is right here on RadioMD. Here's author, blogger, lecturer and national medical media personality, Dr. Michael Smith MD, with Healthy Talk.

DR. MIKE: So what do you think? Is wine really healthy? Oh, I hope so. I enjoy wine. I'm a light wine drinker. I belong to a wine club that sends me two bottles of red and white every other month from around the world and I get to try different varieties. I really enjoy it. So when I saw this headline - this came from a Life Extension blog. You can check it out at It caught my attention when I read it so I wanted to talk about and discuss the research with my listeners.

So, is wine healthy? That's the question. Scientific opinion has really, over the years, flip-flopped on the issue of alcohol and alcohol consumption. Is it good? Is it the alcohol? Is it the grape? It goes back and forth. As a matter of fact, there was a report recently that showed -- Gosh, what did it say? It said alcohol consumption, forget wine, just the ethanol, alcohol itself, is beneficial at least up to the age of 65.

And at that point, you've got to start limiting alcohol consumption. I don't know if it teased out why. You know, you drink, maybe you're prone to fall and if you're over 65 and you fall and there's a -- I don't know, if you're drinking that much.

So anyways the medical community, the scientific community, just goes back and forth, flip flops, and I think the consensus now is a moderate amount of ethanol, alcohol itself, does offer some benefits. And I have a couple of studies I'm going to share with you from the blog.

But we have to be careful with it, too, because I can also cite some other research that shows certain cultures, certain religious groups that prohibit alcohol use, have a lot of longevity running in their people in their groups. So, obviously, there's a lot to longevity, there's a lot to health. It's not just alcohol, it's not just fruits and vegetables and healthy -- I mean genetics plays a role, culture plays a role.

So, just keep that in mind. As a matter of fact too, the French paradox, that whole thing about it, all the French eat as bad as we do here in America. Butter and they fry everything and it's thick sauces and heavy meats but they live longer and that's because of wine. Don't you remember that? I think I learned that in the 80s or something. The French paradox. It's all about the wine.

No, the wine may play a little bit of a role but we also now know -- I mean you just look at serving sizes. Can I say this? We're pigs in this country. Nothing against pigs but we way overeat. Our portion sizes are getting ridiculous. I mean, if anything, the French paradox is connected to portion size, really giving some credibility to the idea of everything in moderation. So, again, we flip-flop a lot as doctors whether we should be allowing our patients to drink a little alcohol.

My overall take is if you're a guy, you can have a couple drinks a day. If you're a woman, one. And I'm not being sexist there. Sorry, gals, studies have shown that men can do a little bit more alcohol and still maintain benefit. There's no doubt that there is a point of diminishing returns with alcohol consumption and that begins around three or four drinks, maybe five drinks depending on the size of the guy; two or three drinks, again depending on the size of the woman.

So, a couple drinks for guys, a drink or so for women a day, and that's probably pretty good. And that's coming from the alcohol consumption, the ethanol.

But now, let's go back to this idea, 'Is wine healthy?' The headline, 'Wine drinkers may live longer than non-drinkers.' Okay. So, that sounds pretty good for someone like me. In July 2014, an analysis of close to 400,000 men and women found an increased risk of death over an average of a 13 year period among heavy drinkers compared to moderate drinkers who consumed about 0.1 to 4.9 grams of alcohol per day.

That's a couple drinks. However, moderate drinkers had a lower risk of death compared with those who reported no drinking at all. So, this is interesting. Heavy wine drinkers didn't do very well in this study. If you're drinking four, five, six glasses of wine a day, problem. That's not good. But if you're doing one or two glasses a day -- let's forget the genders first. Let's just say, men or women, doesn't matter. Two to three glasses of wine a day, one or two glasses of wine a day, something like that, probably okay. So, don't grab for that third glass.

A study of 128,000 Californians found a relationship between more frequent wine drinking and a lower death risk over a 20 year period, which was strongest for deaths from respiratory causes and heart disease. Okay, so again, that moderate, light wine drinking, lower risk of death in one study over 13 years and in another study over 20 years. These were published, by the way, in the British Medical Journal and the American Journal of Epidemiology. So, these are good peer-reviewed publications.

So, let's go to the question, then. Is it the ethanol, the alcohol in wine or is it the antioxidants? You know grapes are good for you, right? The skin of the grape, in particular, and the seed, by the way, but let's just focus on the skin of the grape.

A lot of grape plant-based antioxidants called polyphenols. So, the question becomes what's really giving us this benefit? Is it the alcohol or is it the polyphenols? We know that the red variety of wine, which is my favorite, contains a lot of these polyphenols. And we know polyphenols generally do offer cardiovascular benefits.

In a study involving rats given a standard diet and one that was high in cholesterol, researchers evaluated the effects of alcohol-free red wine for five months. So, this is interesting. They basically give them grape juice, right? So, they gave these rats -- by the way this was published in the Journal of Homeostasis Medicine, 2005 -- they gave these rats alcohol-free red wine.

This is a good way to test this, right? So, you have regular red wine and now you have alcohol-free red wine and this is going to help you to tease out which group is living longer. Is it the alcohol red wine or the alcohol-free red wine? While animals on the high cholesterol diet experience an increased risk for blood clots, these effects were almost completely reversed by the addition of alcohol-free wine.

The authors of the article concluded that wine, rather than alcohol may be able to prevent blood clots associated with high cholesterol levels.
So, there you go.

So, maybe it is the polyphenols that are at least conferring a cardiovascular benefit, not necessarily the ethanol. Of course, you know you have to take this in -- when we present data, I know myself on my show, Healthy Talk, and there's a lot of other great programs on Radio MD -- when we present data, I think we're pretty good at reminding you that we have to really look at a consensus of all the research.

So, here we have some research really pointing to the polyphenols in red wine. But there are some other studies that have shown ethanol itself provides a certain amount of benefit as long as you don't overdo and get to that point of diminished returns. Right?

Here is another study of 67 men--we're moving from rats to men--at high cardiovascular risk. Alcohol-free red wine was shown to decrease blood pressure. So again, it's the polyphenols and we've known that. So, you know, if you can't drink wine or you don't like it, how about some grape juice that doesn't have any added sugar? Or maybe a polyphenol supplement product with a bunch of different berries in it. That might be a good way to go. So, wine is healthy in my opinion.

This is Healthy Talk on Radio MD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay Well.