Monday, June 21, 2010
Wine: Nectar of the Gods
Wine has traditionally been thought of as the Nectar of the Gods. In ancient Greece and Rome wine was used to celebrate the gods Dionysus and Bacchus. This would usually result in people filling the streets in unrestrained eroticism, fornication (ah, the good old days) and who knows what else. Wine has been a central mythic and theological motif in Christianity, if in a milder tone than Dionysian indulgence. Now, as is our want as post-modern Americans, the health benefits of wine are being explored. Not only is wine fun and a social lubricant, as it were, but it's also healthy. We can shed the guilt of our temperance fore-bearers and allow ourselves just a little of the joys of Bacchus.
It's been 18 years since Morley Safer did his piece on the French Paradox on CBS's 60 Minutes. Some of you may recall that the French Paradox attempted to explain how the French who smoke prodigiously, eat a high fat diet of cheese and saturated fat actually live longer than Americans and have less cardiovascular disease. Some concluded that it was the high consumption of red wine that made the difference. This led to a slew of scientific studies that continue to this day. Many of these studies, including the British Medical Journal's 1996 review of 25 studies indicated that those indulging in the consumption of wine experienced a 20% - 40% decrease in cardiovascular disease as well as other age related problems.
A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2009 indicated a five year greater life expectancy in men who drink wine moderately.
What Makes Wine So Healthy?
Wine consists of many compounds that could be the answer to its apparent healing and efficacious affect on human health. It may not be a mistake that wine has been consumed for thousands of years. The compound that many scientists have focused on, however, is resveratrol. The Linus Pauling Institute defines resveratrol as "a polyphenolic compound found in grapes, red wine, purple grape juice, peanuts, and some berries." Interest is running so high in the possibility of reservatrol becoming a veritable "fountain of youth" that the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline recently bought the cutting edge company Sirtris. Sirtis was founded by Drs. Christoph Westphal and David Sinclair in their attempt to research the use of resveratrol in extending life and treating disease.
Caloric Restriction: The Path to Health?
Sinclair is exploring how resveratrol mimics caloric restriction's anti-aging properties. Most promising is its ability to do this while by-passing the sacrifices imposed on those that drastically cut caloric intake. It has been known for many years that low caloric diets inhibit the aging process in yeast, worms, fruit flies, higher animals and humans.
The Life Extension Foundation has explored the use of caloric restriction and its limitations:
"Although caloric restriction may be effective in promoting longevity, the problem is that most adults find this stringent lifestyle strategy to be impractical. As a result, scientists have sought to uncover the precise mechanisms by which caloric restriction promotes longevity, in order to help people capture its life-extending benefits through more practical means."
Is Resveratrol the Key?
The question is if resveratrol is the sought after alternative. The Life Extension Foundation is highly optimistic. In the August 2009 issue of it's monthly magazine, Life Extension, numerous research findings are listed and explored. The article "Extending Life and Fighting Disease with Resveratrol" discuses specifically how resveratrol activates proteins called sirtuins similarly to what occurs in caloric restricted diets. These proteins put the brakes on aging by stabilizing DNA, protecting it from damage, and regulating genetic functions. All of this adds up to a slowing down of the aging process.
Resveratrol has even become the darling of the wine drinking set. The May 31st, 2009 issue of Wine Spectator gave extensive space to the growing research and promise of this touted miracle compound. The article lists numerous areas in which promising research is being performed: 20% - 40% lower rates of CVD, significant delay in the onset of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, 50% cut in the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, 58% lower risk of developing diabetes, a 56% lower risk of developing esophageal cancer, and half the risk of catching the common cold. The preliminary research is very promising.
Morley Safer recently revisited the French Paradox on the May 24th, 2009 edition of 60 Minutes. Drs. Christoph Westphal and David Sinclair were highly enthusiastic and optimistic that a resveratrol drug would be in the offing within five to ten years. You can view the video here:
Not Quite There Yet
Although much of the news about resveratrol seems heartening, the current state of the research is not yet compelling. First, current research needs to be duplcated, especially in long-term human studies, second, the issue of reseratrol's bioavailability needs to be determined and dosage questions settled, third, there are many that believe it is not resveratrol alone that is the source of wine's salubrious effect but other compounds found in wine. Some research indicates that white wine, beer and other spirits are also beneficial. The prestigious Mayo Clinic offers a well balanced appraisal of the state of wine research.
It is important to note that the healthful impact of wine consumption is based on moderate and controlled daily consumption defined as two glasses a day for men and one glass a day for women. Over consumption can lead to detrimental health results such as high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, heart arrhythmia, addiction, as well as serious social, occupational and psychological problems.
Dionysus was known to bring an end to worry and the woes of life and promote relaxation. So, perhaps we can allow ourselves just a little of the joy Dionysus imparted to his followers.