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"I carry on mental dialogues with the shoots of the grapevine, who reveal to me grand thoughts, and to whom I can retell wondrous things."
Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, famous German poet.

Wine and Your Health

        Italian scientists are developing a pill that produces all the health benefits of drinking a glass of red wine, they say.  The idea is to make a liquid concoction with all  the sugar, amino acids, polyphenols and other healthy ingredients in wine, but none of the alcohol.  Then they freeze dry and compact the mixture to form the pill.

        I do not believe them.  No Italian I know would do such a thing to a glass of wine.

        Seriously, I doubt the usefulness of such a pill even if it works as advertised.  It smacks too much to me of the quick-fix culture, the high-pressure world where everything must be made faster-smaller-better no matter what the cost.  The health aspects of wine are not just about polyphenols and amino acids.  They include everything that goes with the glass: the healthier lifestyle.  This wine-as-pill theory reminds me of the people who diet by having a diet soda with their double-cheeseburger and fries.  It is better than not doing anything, but not as good as it could be.

        Before we go any further, let me state clearly that I am not a doctor or medical professional of any kind.  Anything I say here about the health effects of wine is solely my own opinion about what I have read, and you should consult your physician before making any changes in your diet, exercise, or consumption of alcoholic beverages.

        It seems that wherever you look today, you see articles telling you that wine (as well as beer) may help prevent various types of cancer, clean out your arteries to alleviate coronory problems, promotes good choleserol, prevents ulcers, wards off Alzheimer's, and helps cure the common cold.  None of this is truly new; physicians have regarded wine as a healthful drink.  Hippocrates recommended wines for healing 450 years before Christ, and the first known wine book was written by a French physician in 1410 AD.  Until relatively recently (1800's), wine was regarded as healthier than water due to the micro-organisms that were killed off by the alcohol and acids in wine.

        But sometime in the second half of the Twentieth Century, there was a strong reaction against wine and any form of alcohol in the health community.  This was particularly true in America, and may have been to some extent a reaction to the drinking surge during Prohibition and post-Prohibition years.  Wineries here had been devastated, and what wine was available was generally of poor quality.  Americans were drinking liquor, and much wine was fortified to sell in the market.  For about 25 years any evidence that consumption of wine or alcoholic beverages of any kind aided health was down-played.  Not surprisingly, most of these physicians were starting as doctors or in medical school during Prohibition.

        Then came the famous "French Paradox" segment on the television show "60 Minutes" in November of 1991.  That profiled research about people in the South of France.  They ate a diet that American current wisdom said should have led to coronary disease: cheese, butter, eggs, organ meats, fatty and cholesterol-laden foods.  Yet the rate of heart disease there was lower than in America.  The researcher being interviewed concluded that the regular consumption of red wine somehow offset all the bad effects of the diet.

        Shown on a very popular TV program immediately after a football game, this was seen by a huge audience of Americans.  Not surprisingly, red wine sales soared.  The baby boomer generation was hitting an age where they were very health conscious.  Here was a study that seemed to say they could have their cake and eat it too.  Just switch to drinking red wine and you could go on eating what you wanted.  What a deal!

    In the years since, study after study seems to be telling us about the beneficial affects of wine drinking, and particularly red wine.  Reservatrol is the current darling.  This seems to be a big cancer fighter in wine, and wine also contains antioxidants which are known to be cancer fighters.  Since reservatrol is contained in the skin and seeds, there is less of it in white wine than in red wine.  Naturally enough, funds are available for these types of studies now that were not available earlier, so there are more studies and they are widely publicized.  The more studies you make, the more you can discover to speculate on.

        It is not that simple, of course.  There are certainly indications that wine can promote health.  But, as with almost all things in life, balance and moderation are very important.  Drinking a bottle a day is not indicated.  Neither is "binge" drinking where you have a dozen glasses on the weekend to average out to two a day for the week.  Steady moderate drinking is what appears to lead to the best results.

        All the studies indicate that for men already in good health, drinking between 1 and 2 glasses a day is best.  Those who average 3 to 4 glasses show fewer beneficial effects.  Those who drink 5 to 6 glasses a day see a degradation of health, not an improvement, on average.  Women need to be careful about this: pre-menopausal women with a family history of breast cancer should be very conscious of the risks and consult a physician on the matter.  In general, women before menopause should drink a bit less than men.

        In addition, it is extremely difficult to run these studies so that the only variable is the wine.  The people who drink moderately also tend to be people who lead a healthy lifestyle.  They eat well (in a health sense), they often get more exercise, they are generally in good health, they tend to smoke less.  We may be looking at a situation where the benefit is the result of many causes and we are trying to assign it to only wine.

        I also think that people who drink wine tend to live a different lifestyle.  Wine is just not a drink for gulping.  A glass is more to be savored than chugged.  It seems to go with quiet conversation and relaxed times with friends, with leisurely meals and quiet moments.  It might just be my personal view, but I think wine may lead to relieving stress, and stress is as big a killer as almost anything.  I can't prove it; I just believe it.

        Somehow I can not see that Italian wine pill doing that.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007