Dr. Rajiv Patel is an enthusiast. Yet, though he enjoys a nice glass of red wine, Patel is careful to emphasize that any advice he has to offer is based solely on the data.
“The evidence that relates alcohol consumption to cardiovascular risks and benefits is based on data from observational studies,” explains Patel, an internal medicine physician with SSM Medical Group at St. Mary’s Health Center. And that data can be hard to interpret. Pros and cons abound, making the debate about the health benefits of red wine just that—an ongoing debate.
“The cardiovascular benefit of moderate alcohol intake must be balanced against the multiple deleterious effects of alcohol on conditions such as liver disease, cancer and accidental deaths,” Patel says. “The net risk-benefit balance associated with moderate alcohol consumption is likely to differ in various age groups and populations. The American Heart Association recommends against advising people who don't currently drink to initiate light alcohol use.”
However, studies do appear to lean toward connecting red wine consumption with cardiovascular benefits. Sifting through the data, Dr. Denise Janosik, a Mercy Clinic cardiologist, notes: “Many observational studies have demonstrated lower risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular mortality in people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol, compared to people who abstain completely from alcohol or those who drink heavily or binge drink. In these studies, all types of alcohol showed a benefit against cardiac disease if consumed moderately, but the greatest benefit is reported with red wine.”
Janosik notes that these studies are not conclusive, but they do suggest a benefit to drinking red wine. However, "the problems with observational studies are that individuals self-report the amount of alcohol they consume and there is no attempt to influence what type or amount of alcohol they consume."
Particular attention has landed on resveratrol, an antioxidant compound found in blueberries, peanuts, cocoa, grape skin and red wine. In animal studies, resveratrol appeared to increase longevity, even when the animal was given a high-fat diet. But it’s important to note that the amount of resveratrol given to the study subjects was the equivalent of that found in more than 1,000 liters of human red wine consumption daily.
Humans are advised to limit daily alcohol consumption to one five-ounce glass of wine (or 12-ounce beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor) for women and two for men. “Women are particularly sensitive to alcohol and are at risk for liver disease if they drink more than two drinks per day,” Janosik says. “If they do not drink, I would not recommend starting for cardiac protection. They can get antioxidants from other sources and raise their HDL (good cholesterol) with exercise. People need to check with their physician regarding the compatibility of their meds with alcohol and the restriction on alcohol because of their medical conditions.”
Whether red wine is a special heart-healthy alcoholic beverage also remains open to question. “It is uncertain whether wine is more cardio-protective than other types of alcohol and likely that the type of alcohol is not as important as the amount of alcohol consumed and the pattern of intake,” Patel notes.
As scientists continue to study red wine, reservatrol and a vast array of other dietary components that may affect cardiovascular health and longevity, Janosik sums up her advice: “Everything in moderation.”