By Dr. Harvey Finkel

Researchers have found that moderate drinkers live longer than either
abstainers or heavy drinkers. The mortality rates of these studies generally
follow a U-shaped curve, with abstainers at one end and heavy drinkers
(more than 3 a day) at the other. In the middle are drinkers that consume
approximately 1 drink a day. Depending on the study, their mortality rates
are around 25% lower, and in some case the rates of coronary heart disease
are 40% lower. This decrease risk of heart disease, even in countries that
consume high-fat foods, is sometimes referred to as the “French paradox” or
the “Mediterranean diet”.

What is the mechanism?

Some investigations have increasingly pointed toward beneficial components
found in red wine. French researchers in an ASAP article in the Journal of
Agricultural and Food Chemistry remark, “Growing evidence points to a major
role for the phenolic compounds found in wine.” They report that phenolic
acids found in wine inhibit the expression of AP-1 (activator protein-1)
and may prevent some of the processes involved in atherosclerosis or
hardening of the arteries marked by deposition of cholesterol and fats.

AP-1 is a protein complex suspected to play a role in the expression of a
variety of genes. Inhibition of AP-1 could prevent cell/tumor proliferation
and various cellular responses to stress. Going on the assumption that AP-1
is activated by reactive oxygen species, the researchers wanted to see if
the antioxidants in wine could prevent its activation.

More info about antioxidants

Scientific views on these compounds are not unanimous. These are mostly
polyphenols, which can be referred to as antioxidants, according to their
most attractive function. They are, of course, found in grapes, chiefly the
skins, so their concentrations tend to be higher in red wines (skins
participate in fermentation) than white (skins separated). They are well
extracted during alcoholic fermentation. Their functions in the vine are
only partially known – antifungal, for one. These antioxidants are less
available in other beverages. Among the best known and most biologically
active are resveratrol, quercetin and the catechins.

The antioxidants with which we are concerned are a class of phytochemicals,
that is, compounds of vegetable origin. They are not exclusive to grapes,
although grapes are relatively richly endowed. They are also found in allium
vegetables (onion, leek, garlic, shallot), broccoli, spinach, blueberries,
strawberries, tea and chocolate, as well as the drinks named.

For some time there was doubt about whether antioxidants could be absorbed
when ingested, and whether they were biologically potent. By now the doubts
have been resolved in favor of the antioxidants. They appear to be even more
active than the more renowned antioxidant vitamins A, C and E.

How can they help us?

At or near the top of causes of death and disability are diseases of the
heart and blood vessels, cancer and degenerative disorders. Free radicals
and oxidation figure heavily in the causation and aggravation of these ills.
Free radicals, not a political term, are high reactive oxidative compounds
produced normally as the body functions. Smoking, radiation and certain
chemicals enhance their production – thus straining, sometimes overwhelming,
the body’s natural enzyme-mediated antioxidant defense system. This is why
there is so much interest in importing additional antioxidants, especially
those derived from food and drink. Look at a partial list of diseases suspected
of being able to be relieved by antioxidants: heart attack, stroke, other
complications of blood-vessel disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other
dementias and degenerative disorders, immune dysfunction, cataract, macular
degeneration. Aging itself may be retarded by antioxidants.
Recent studies of the cardiovascular system report reduction of risk of heart
attack in the elderly by a diet high in vitamin A, but not vitamin C or E,
reduction in risk of ischemic stroke associated with the antioxidants of
fruits and vegetables (but no benefit from vitamins A, C or E), and improved
coronary artery function apparently due to vitamin C. Antioxidant vitamins
may cause trouble at times. The antioxidants of wine and grape juice
favorably modulate inflammation and the blood clotting that climaxes heart
attacks and strokes, and help further by relaxing blood vessels and
inhibiting the oxidation of LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol to its dangerous form.
Recent studies suggest that the antioxidants of wine inhibit Helicobacter
pylori, a bacterium that causes gastritis, peptic ulcer and stomach cancer,
and which may participate in atherosclerosis. They impede the production of
endothelin-1, a small protein thought by some to be a prime initiator of
coronary disease. Similar, but less-established, benefits may result from
the antioxidant flavonoids found in tea and chocolate, virtually identical
to those of wine.

Antioxidants against cancer

Second in importance to their cardiovascular benefits are antioxidants’
actions against cancer. Likely, we are just beginning to peel off layers
of understanding. By both antibacterial effects and by scavanging
destructive superoxide to reduce tissue injury, these compounds may prevent
cancers of the stomach and other organs. Quercetin has been noted to
inhibit the growth of cancer and leukemia cells, and to potentiate
anticancer chemotherapy. One report has resveratrol initiating a process
one might term cancer-cell suicide, but another suggests that antioxidant
vitamins may do the opposite, resulting in larger brain tumors in mice.
(No harm comes to cancer-free mice of this strain). Diligent science is hard.

Other benefits

The rest of the demonstrated or suspected benefits of the antioxidants are
in earlier days yet than those already cited. Improved brain and muscle
function has been found associated with moderate wine consumption and with
supplementation with blueberries, strawberries and spinach. Among a number
of studies indicating that moderate wine consumption correlates with
preservation of mental capacity, that comparing aging twins is particularly
impressive. The co-twins who averaged one to two drinks per day scored higher
intellectually than their counterparts who drank significantly more or
significantly less.

A number of very nasty bacteria and viruses are inactivated by wine and by
grapes (but, surprisingly, in some cases not by alcohol).

Finally, a most important subject, weight control. Long noted but
unexplained has been a disparity between the number of alcohol calories
ingested and weight. A peek behind the mystery may be offered by the
observation that catechin polyphenols (flavonoid antioxidants, as found in
wine, green tea, etc.) stimulate the “burning” of body fat. An ascetic might
be inclined to ask why not eat just the fruits and veggies, and shun alcohol.
Fear not, there are reasons enough. Alcohol in moderation contributes at
least half of wine’s cardiovascular benefits, and likely provides numerous
other health benefits, but little, if any, risk. It may enhance the desired
actions of the antioxidants, and, when combined with antioxidants in the
enriching form of wine, its package can’t be beat.

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