Drinking Wine for Health: Bottoms Up or Down?

Over the past couple of decades, some studies have seemed to show that alcohol, particularly red wine, is good for you. Moderate consumption was linked to better cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels, and to lower rates of overall mortality. It’s a message many embraced enthusiastically. Wine sales soared, and many began to view their evening Cabernet as the equivalent of an apple a day.

Lately, however, the news has become more mixed. Almost every week seems to bring new studies challenging or reinterpreting what we’ve come to believe. It’s a confusing time for those who simply want to know, “Is this glass of wine good for me?”

With the newest research factored in, the short answer appears to be this: If you drink an occasional glass of wine, you probably won’t do yourself much harm. Just don’t count on it to do you much good. Here’s a look at what some of the most recent studies are indicating:

Alcohol may help only a lucky few.

  • A long-term UK study that looked at people over age 50 concluded that the protective health effects of drinking may well be an illusion – likely the result of faulty study methodology that lumped former drinkers in with teetotalers. Those who have quit drinking are more likely to be former alcoholics or in ill health, the researchers noted, so they may have made the drinking groups in previous research look healthier in comparison. When the UK researchers removed former drinkers from their analysis, they saw all the protective benefits of alcohol consumption drop away – except for one group, women over 65, who were less likely than lifetime teetotalers to die in the study’s follow-up period.
  • A 2014 study out of Sweden makes the case that, yes, modest drinking can protect against coronary heart disease, but only for those with a certain genotype (about 15% of the population).

 Even moderate drinking may have risks.

  • One problem with alcohol research is that it relies on study participants telling the truth about how much they drink. A 2014 study sought to get around that in a unique way: The researchers looked at the health and drinking habits of more than 260,000 people across 56 studies, comparing people with a genetic variant that makes them much less likely to be drinkers to those who don’t have the variant. In general, those with the genetic variant had much better cardiovascular health and lower levels of several risk factors for heart disease. Although the study didn’t prove cause and effect, it suggests that the less alcohol that’s drunk, the better, and even light to moderate drinkers might benefit from drinking less.
  • A study out of Finland that looked at 2,609 men with no history of stroke found that those who consume alcohol more than twice a week had three times the risk of stroke as those who don’t drink at all, no matter how much total alcohol was consumed.
  • Even one to three drinks a day of wine or hard liquor can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation, a potentially dangerous condition in which the heart beats abnormally fast. That’s according to a 2014 study that followed close to 80,000 adults for more than a decade. For reasons that remain a mystery to the researchers, the risk wasn’t seen with beer.

The excitement over resveratrol may be unfounded.

  • The antioxidant resveratrol has been suspected of being the magic ingredient in foods such as red wine and dark chocolate. But an international research team that studied residents in the wine-loving Chianti region of Italy for 15 years found that diets rich in resveratrol didn’t reduce deaths, cardiovascular disease or cancer. “The story of resveratrol turns out to be another case where you get a lot of hype about health benefits that doesn’t stand the test of time,” said Richard D. Semba, MD, MPH, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor and the study leader, in a university press release. Still, the researchers didn’t advise putting down that glass of Chianti just yet. Some component in the wine may well be doing us good, they concluded. It’s just not resveratrol.

Drinking Wine for Health: Bottoms Up or Down?It’s not all bad news, though: The most recent research does include some bright spots for those who enjoy an occasional drink. A University of Texas study, for example, found that moderate or light drinking by those 60 or older who do not have dementia was linked with better episodic memory – the ability to recall events – and larger hippocampal brain volume.

Even more thrilling to some is that certain chemicals in red wine appear to increase our ability to burn fat. It’s not a weight-loss cure, the researchers cautioned, but it could help prevent the harmful accumulation of fat in the liver. The researchers noted, however, that drinking grape juice or eating red grapes affords the same protection.

A Few Things to Consider Before Filling Your Glass

Ultimately, how much you drink or whether you do is an individual decision. As you make that decision, I offer these words of advice, speaking from my position as an addiction treatment professional who has too often seen alcohol’s potential for harm:

  • Practice moderation. One thing you can take to the bank is that moderate drinking is healthier than heavy drinking. But “moderate” can be a fluid term. Pour your next drink into a measuring cup. You may be unpleasantly surprised by how much you’ve been consuming. When it comes to wine, health officials generally recommend no more than one five-ounce serving a day for women and two for men.
  • If you don’t drink, don’t start just for the health benefits. There may well turn out to be few or none. And there are so many side effect-free ways to boost your physical and mental health – exercise, eating right, meditation, mindfulness.
  • Give yourself a few days off. If you’ve gotten into the habit of a nightly drink or two (or three), give yourself a few days off out of the week. If the very thought makes you feel a little panicky, it’s time to evaluate your drinking.
  • Don’t drink to handle stress. Research shows that if we normally find a drink relaxing, it may have the opposite effect when we are stressed. And that may lead us to think we need to drink more to capture the feeling. It can be a vicious cycle.
  • Don’t drink as an escape from problems. If alcohol is your way of blotting negative thoughts or feelings, you’re setting yourself up for trouble as well as missing out on a chance to find true healing. Instead, turn to a mental health professional.
  • Take your addiction risk into account. The good news is that most people who drink do not become addicted. But addiction does have a strong genetic If addiction runs in your family, drinking – even if it’s in pursuit of health benefits – isn’t worth the risk.

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