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Numerous studies show wine is part of a healthy diet
By John H. Isacs

BECAUSE it's my passion as well as work, many aspects of wine intrigue me. Not the least is the relationship between wine and a healthy lifestyle. Numerous studies have indicated that wine, while not a singular prescription for good health, is nonetheless one extremely pleasurable way to enjoy a healthy life. While this may seem like a recent phenomenon, in fact the healthy qualities of wines have been recognized for thousands of years.

Ancient medicine

The earliest accounts of wine benefitting health are found on Sumerian and Egyptian tablets dating back to 2300 BC. These ancient tablets provide recipes for medicines made with wine and currently are the oldest documented man-made medicine. As the history of wine is now believed to be at least 7,000 years old, the use of wine as medicine and the belief that wine is beneficial to human health almost certainly predates the Sumerian and Egyptian tablets.

The Greeks made the art of medicine more of a science and wine played a key role. The most famous Greek physician of all, Hippocrates, proscribed wine as a daily health drink to be enjoyed with food and also used it as medicine for digestive ailments and as well as a disinfectant for wounds. Roman physicians continued to advocate wine as a medicine as well as a healthy addition to one's diet. The spread of the Roman Empire played a central role in the increase of wine cultivation and consumption throughout Europe. Even Islamic doctors used alcohol and wine for medicinal purposes despite its consumption being outlawed by the Quran.

In the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance periods the Catholic church brought wine to new levels of prominence. Wine used to symbolize Jesus' blood and therefore was an essential part of the sacrament. Monks all over Europe and in the New World promoted the cultivation of wine while also using it as a companion to food and for medicinal purposes.

For most of human history wine has been predominantly viewed as beneficial to health. Modern views depicting wine as something detrimental to our health actually only date to the late 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution in Europe then elsewhere ushered in an era of cheap mass produced wines and liquors for workers in the cities. This resulted in epidemics of alcoholism and alcohol-related health and sociological problems. Alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes or releases available to many workers of this age as they toiled and lived in miserable conditions.

Considering the overall decrepit conditions, rampant alcoholism was hardly surprising. But it did lead to a backlash that in some societies or groups branded alcohol of all types, including wines, as an evil. In the 20th century many politicians, religious leaders and also physicians collectively painted a gloomy picture of alcohol as detrimental to the health of people as well as society.

Thankfully the end of the 20th century started a new age of reason, at least in terms of how wine is viewed, and medical study after medical study started to expound the benefits of wine.

In the 1990s the growing body of scientific evidence started to change our view on wine and portray it as a good thing, albeit with the very logical qualification that too much of anything, even a good thing, is bad. There were of course qualifications such as pregnant women and individuals with certain chronic ailments, but in general wine was once again increasingly being viewed as a potentially positive part of one's diet. So here we are at the start of the 21st century taking a new, or more correctly ancient, view of wine and its health benefits. Science like the more ancient art of making wine is never static and always evolving, but here are some of the more intriguing recent findings pertaining to wine and good health.

I still remember the glee my father had in 1990 when the first reports of wine and its benefits for the health were being widely circulated in the US. He rather proudly proclaimed to anyone interested in listening that he had been saying that all his life.

Health benefits

The "French paradox" was widely publicized in the US media and was a revelation to many. The French paradox was based on a study by a Bordeaux-based scientist, Serge Renuad, and subsequently by other teams, that indicated that despite a diet rich in dairy and high fat foods the French people had a lower instance of heart disease than Americans and the British. In his report, Renuad claimed a major reason for lower heart disease in the French despite their high fat diet was the regular consumption of red wine. Not surprisingly, red wine sales in the US enjoyed an annual growth rate of 45 percent the year following the study.

The benefits of alcohol in general and polyphenols, which are a complex mixture of flavonoids and nonflavonoids found in red wines, have been well-documented. Since I am neither a scientist nor medical doctor, I shall merely summarize some of the more interesting recent findings on wine and health in leading medical publications. Since the early 1990s there have been numerous reports on how wines help fight heart disease and have anti-cancer qualities. More recently, studies by Harvard researcher Arthur Agatston, MD, who is the creator of the South Beach diet, encourages people to drink wine while eating. He explains the ability of wine to slow the digestive process in the stomach decreases the amount of food consumed at a meal. A study by the New England Journal of Medicine compared elderly women who drank wine and those that did not and found the wine drinkers had better mental function and were less likely to develop dementia and other degenerative mental diseases. A 2009 Wake Forest University School of Medicine study suggested the role of alcohol in promoting "good cholesterol" may prevent blood platelets from sticking together and thereby benefit brain function and memory. The study also noted that while moderate wine consumption may benefit brain functions, heavy wine consumption definitely impairs brain function.

Other health benefits recently attributed to regular moderate wine consumption include improved eyesight, bone health, anti-aging properties and anti-bacterial properties. Perhaps my favorite study was performed by Danish doctors in 2001. This study compared the IQs of wine and beer drinkers. After extensive testing they discovered that wine drinkers had better overall mental performance and on average had IQs 18 points higher. I'm not so sure that regular moderate wine consumption will really make you smarter, but studies indicate it can benefit your health and I can say for a fact that it certainly will make you happier.

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