What is the issue with alcohol?
That said, there are many of us who enjoy a tipple or two, perhaps buoyed by the idea that moderate amounts may be cardio-protective. However there is evidence – albeit conflicting – that it’s not just excess or binge drinking that may be detrimental. Even modest intakes, on a regular basis, may increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) because alcohol may contribute to obesity, sleep-disordered breathing and high blood pressure.
With such conflicting information how do we sort fact from fiction? We explore the evidence behind red wine and its possible health benefits.
What is red wine?
Wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice. It’s a beverage that has been enjoyed for thousands of years. The colour of red wine is a result of the skins, pulp and seeds of the grape being fermented with the juice and imparting their pigment. This also means that red wine is packed with plant compounds (polyphenols), boasting 10 times more than white wine. The amounts of these compounds will vary, though, depending on the grape, its maturity, the climate, production method and maturation and ageing conditions.
What are the health benefits of drinking red wine?
1. Contains protective plant compounds
Wine, and especially red wine, contains plant compounds that have antioxidant properties. These compounds include quercetin, catechin, anthocyanin and resveratrol, and some scientists believe they may play a part in helping prevent heart disease. However, there are many other health-promoting foods and drinks that would make better choices, such as blueberries, strawberries and grapes as well as pomegranates, walnuts and green tea.
2. May support gut health
Studies suggest the plant compounds in red wine act as a fuel source for the good bacteria in our gut. These bacteria convert the plant compounds into active chemicals that help our immune system and our heart to function well.
3. May protect against heart disease
Resveratrol is thought to be one of the most useful plant compounds when it comes to heart health and research does suggest that ‘moderate’ drinking (no more than five units per week) may offer some protection against heart disease, but primarily for men aged over 40 and post-menopausal women (and only when consumption is limited to five units a week – that’s just two standard glasses of wine). There is little evidence that drinking wine or other alcohol will improve the health of younger people, who may be less at risk of heart disease.
4. May have anti-inflammatory properties
Resveratrol and quercetin have anti-inflammatory properties, which may play a role in reducing inflammation and promoting tissue repair. For example, they help protect LDL cholesterol (the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol) from damage and support the health of our blood vessels, which is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure and for cardiovascular function.
5. May reduce insulin resistance
Is a moderate intake of red wine safe for adults?
There’s long been a discussion about the risks and rewards of drinking red wine and the truth is there is a fine line between the amount of alcohol that may be beneficial to health and that which may cause harm.
The problem is most of us don’t drink light to moderate amounts and the benefits of alcohol need to be evaluated within the context of other aspects of our lives. For example, the cardiovascular benefits may be outweighed if our alcohol consumption and other lifestyle and dietary factors increase our risk of cancer. Breast cancer is one form of cancer where alcohol consumption is a risk factor.
It is also worth remembering that high levels of alcohol disrupt sleep, cloud judgement and potentially interact with prescribed medication, so keeping to low-moderate levels is without doubt the most sensible approach. Or better still, avoid it altogether – this should be the case if you are pregnant, trying to conceive, have a pre-existing health condition or take medication that may be affected by alcohol. For new mums, regularly drinking more than two units of alcohol daily while breastfeeding may affect a baby’s development. Alcohol passes into breast milk and may affect its taste and smell, so avoid breastfeeding two to three hours after drinking alcohol or express milk before you partake in a glass of wine.
Those with acid reflux should be mindful of the effects of wine on their condition, although studies suggest white wine is more likely to cause an issue than red.
What are the alcohol guidelines?
The UK Government currently recommends that if you choose to drink alcohol and you drink most weeks, you should limit your consumption to no more than 14 units per week. If this is a normal amount for you, spread your drinking over three days or more while enjoying some alcohol-free days during the week.
What’s the healthiest way to enjoy a glass of red wine?
If you do decide to partake, enjoy your glass of red with a meal. This is because, when the body is digesting food, the polyphenols in the wine help to minimise the short-term inflammatory process instigated by digestion. Furthermore, alcohol slows digestion and the food from your meal reduces the speed at which alcohol is absorbed.
How many units am I really drinking?
It can be difficult to understand how many units you’re drinking, but our handy guide will help you check. These figures are relevant for a small glass of wine (125ml). Don’t forget that when you order a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant, you will often be served a measure much larger than 125ml.
- 9% alcohol by volume (abv) = 1 unit
- 10% abv = 1.25 units
- 11% abv = 1.375 units
- 12% abv = 1.5 units
- 13% abv = 1.625 units
- 14% abv = 1.75 units
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If you or someone you know may have a problem with their alcohol consumption, speak to your GP and check out the NHS website for more help with alcohol support.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.