The French Paradox: Is Red Wine Really Good For Our Health?

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The French Paradox: Is Red Wine Really Good For Our Health?
June 12
21:18 2016

The French Paradox

First coined in 1992, the term French Paradox referred to the decrease in cardiovascular risk of the French despite a higher than average intake of saturated fats. This led many researchers to investigate the potential health benefits of red wine (a staple in their diets) as a possible explanation to this effect. The reason behind wine getting more attention was thought to be due to several of its components, namely: resveratrol, quercetin and ethanol. The newly discovered resveratrol in wine, a potent antioxidant, received the most praise and investigation from American scholars. Let’s see how wine stacks up health-wise and whether we should be drinking it for our daily dose of antioxidants.

Why is wine good?

We now understand a lot more about how and why wine can contribute to good health. It is important to realize, however, that wine varies greatly between regions, and grape varietals. This being said, experts state that red wine is the better choice when compared to white. This is simply due to the higher content of antioxidants contained in the skin of the grapes used to make red. In fact, red wine has been shown to have 10 times more phenolic compounds than its white counterpart.

Wine has several biological effects on the body. In short, red wine has been shown to have an effect on blood vessel health, blood sugar management, and reducing oxidative stress (an underlying cause of many chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension and cognitive decline).

Taking a closer look at how moderate red wine consumption can improve health outcomes, a review in the prestigious BMJ found an overall increase in ‘good’ HDL cholesterol of 8% and a decrease in all coronary heart disease risk by 25%. The benefit of raising HDL is quite unique, as only exercise and niacin (vitamin B3) have been other agents shown to have significant effects in this marker.

Alcohol in general, including red wine, has a blood-thinning or ‘antithrombotic’ effect that can contribute to decreasing risk of heart attack and stroke. Red wine, however, contains a specific grape seed extract that works overtime to keep blood flowing smoothly and without clots. If you opt for a non-alcoholic red wine, expect to see similar effects, as the grape seed extract is not unique to the alcohol-containing varieties.

Red wine has two roles in Diabetes Mellitus: prevention of the disease and reduced risk of microvascular complications (kidney, eye and nerve health). Moderate drinkers of red wine were found to have a 40% reduced risk of developing diabetes compared with non-drinkers. In addition, those who had elevated fasting blood sugar saw a reduction after 3 months of consuming one glass of red wine daily.

The spotlight on resveratrol

So what exactly makes this antioxidant so powerful? It was first discovered in the 1940s but didn’t get noticed until the French Paradox studies in the early 1990s. It belongs to a group of molecules called polyphenols that have been shown to have several health effects in the body. Red wine is one of a few dietary sources, including peanuts, cocoa and berries. When examining the content of resveratrol in wine, concentrations vary widely from 0.1-14.3mg/L. To put this in perspective, studies showing the health benefits of resveratrol used doses of 75mg per day (that equates to at least 5 bottles of red wine!). No wonder supplemental forms of resveratrol have come to market in recent years- it is currently a 30 million dollar a year industry despite a lack of strong evidence that resveratrol alone is responsible for all of red wine’s health benefits.

Resveratrol acts mainly as an antioxidant, but also has been shown to affect cell signaling which can impact how our bodies react to sugar, stress and inflammation. It should come as no surprise that this can improve insulin sensitivity and pancreatic function, relax blood vessels for lower blood pressure and decrease prostaglandin formation (the molecules that cause pain and inflammation in the body).

One caveat: it’s important to remember that most of the studies showing human benefit of red wine are not simply because of resveratrol, and those that did exclusively study this antioxidant showed weak results, at best.

A glass of Malbec for our health?

Malbec contains the highest levels of resveratrol of all red wines due to the thick skin of the grape in this variety. Other dry red wines do contain comparable amounts, but white wine falls short regardless of type.

Quantity matters. Most studies examined the effects of 1 glass of red wine a day for women, and 2 for men. Binge drinking (more than 3 glasses per day) and abstaining completely from the beverage had less favourable effects on health. In addition, some studies found beneficial effects from alcohol in general in these quantities, not necessarily only attainable from red wine.

In conclusion, if you enjoy your vino, switch to red and keep quantity under the recommended limit. If you aren’t a drinker, don’t start simply because of the health benefits mentioned; remember, non-alcoholic wine and pure juice have similar effects. It would appear that the French Paradox is not quite as clear-cut as we once thought. Perhaps it’s the idea of moderation (even with wine) that leads to long- term health benefit.

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About Author

Dr. Laura Belus, ND

Dr. Laura Belus, ND

Dr. Laura Belus, ND (Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine) - Licenses & Memberships: College of Naturopaths of Ontario, Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors, Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors |

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