Wine, Alcohol and Your Health

Wine is not only the oldest alcoholic beverage but the oldest medicinal agent in continuous use throughout human history. The use of wine dates back more than 6,000 years, and is attributed to physicians, scientists, poets and peasants. Even today, wine and other alcoholic beverages are classified as foods and used daily in most cultures. More healthful benefits have been bestowed upon wine than any other natural substance. For instance, drinking wine with meals can help with relaxation and digestion.

There are few known unhealthy effects from moderate amounts of alcohol consumption, with negative consequences seen mostly in those who go beyond moderation. In fact, as we’ve all heard for a long time, there are many positive health benefits associated with wine consumption. Drinking wine and other alcohol in moderation significantly lowers the risk of coronary heart disease. Moderate drinkers have healthier cholesterol ratios as alcohol raises the HDLand lowers LDL. This may be one reason for the lower incidence of heart disease in consumers versus abstainers. Another may be that alcohol increases blood flow to the heart. In addition, alcohol reduces the tendency to form blood clots, a major cause of heart attacks (and strokes). Alcohol also lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, and improves bone health. Moreover, those who don’t drink actually have greater risk for heart disease. Some scientists say that people who have one or two drinks per day may add three to four years of life expectancy, as compared to those who don’t drink.

Scientists also say that red wine may be a potent cancer inhibitor. Resveratrol, a substance found in red wine (due to the fact that grape skins are used to make red wine, but not white), grapes, and thousands of medicinal plants from South America and China, not only interferes with cancer’s development, but may also cause precancerous cells to reverse to normal. Resveratrol also has anti-inflammatory properties.

Most wine contains about 12 percent alcohol (mostly ethanol, with only a very small percentage of other types of alcohol). Sweet dessert wines may contain up to 20 percent alcohol. This compares to 40 percent (80 proof) and 50 percent (100 proof) alcohol in distilled products such as vodka and gin. Wine also contains vitamins B1, B2, B6 and niacin, as well as traces of most minerals, including iron. Most red table wine contains iron in the easily usable ferrous form. The pH of wine is low, like that of the stomach; perhaps one reason wine improves appetite and digestion. Eating natural fats with wine slows the absorption of alcohol and protects the intestine from possible irritation.

Once in the blood, alcohol is broken down in the liver. About 3.5 ounces of pure alcohol can be safely metabolized by the body if spread out over the day. This translates to about a bottle of wine — not something I’m recommending. To a European, this may not seem like excess, but to an American it might. In the United States, the average annual per-capita consumption of wine is just a few teaspoons, while in Italy, it’s about a half bottle.

As a group, women are more susceptible to negative effects of alcohol because of their smaller size, and because they have less amount of alcohol dehydrogenase in their stomachs and livers. This enzyme breaks down much of the alcohol before it’s absorbed, and in the blood.

If you enjoy wine and want the health benefits associated with it, drink only what you enjoy and can tolerate, and no more than one or two glasses. The simplest recommendation is a 4-ounce glass or two with meals. For most people a glass of wine will be completely metabolized in about an hour and a half. Some people, however, should never consume alcohol. But a moderate amount for those who can, and want to, is now considered to be 4 to 8 ounces of wine per day.

An obvious side effect of alcohol is that it impairs your senses, so it should be avoided within four hours of driving a vehicle. One drink increases the risk of an accident by 50 percent, two drinks by 100 percent. Also, wine should not be taken with other drugs, or by people with certain illnesses, and is not recommended for pregnant women. Although wine gives a relaxed feeling, any alcohol can disturb sleep if consumed shortly before bedtime. Studies of biological circadian rhythms in humans show that alcohol is best metabolized between 5 and 6 pm. If you enjoy wine, be sure to ask your doctor whether it poses any health problems for you.

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